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THE  PREFABRICATION 
OF  HOUSES 


TECHNOLOGY  PRESS  BOOKS 

PRINCIPLES  OF  ELECTRICAL  ENGINEERING  SERIES 
By  Members  of  the  Staff  of  the 
Department  of  Electrical  Engineering, 
Massachusetts  Institute  of  Technology 

THE  MATHEMATICS  OF  CIRCUIT  ANALYSIS 

Extensions  to  the  Mathematical  Training  of  Electrical  Engineers 
By  E.  A.  Guillemin 

MAGNETIC  CIRCUITS  AND  TRANSFORMERS 

A  First  Course  for  Power  and  Communication  Engineers 

APPLIED  ELECTRONICS 

A  First  Course  in  Electronics,  Electron  Tubes,  and  Associated  Circuits 

ELECTRIC  CIRCUITS 

A  First  Course  in  Circuit  Analysis  for  Electrical  Engineers 

THE  PREFABRICATION  OF  HOUSES 

By  Burnham  Kelly 

PRESSURES  ON  WAGE  DECISIONS 

A  Case  Study  in  the  Shoe  Industry 
By  George  P.  Shultz 

THE  DOLLAR  SHORTAGE 

By  Charles  P.  Kindleberger 

TRANSMISSION  OF  NERVE  IMPULSES  AT  NEUROEFFECTOR  JUNCTIONS  AND 
PERIPHERAL  SYNAPSES 
By  Arturo  Rosenblueth 

MID-CENTURY 

The  Social  Implications  of  Scientific  Progress 
By  John  Burchard 

AN  INDEX  OF  NOMOGRAMS 

Compiled  and  edited  by  Douglas  P.  Adams 

EXTRAPOLATION,  INTERPOLATION,  AND  SMOOTHING  OF  STATIONARY  TIME  SERIES 
with  Engineering  Applications 
By  Norbert  Wiener 

CYBERNETICS 

Or  Control  and  Communication  in  the  Animal  and  the  Machine 
By  Norbert  Wiener 

Q.E.D.,  M.I.T.  IN  WORLD  WAR  II 
By  John  Burchard 

SCIENTIFIC  SOCIETIES  IN  THE  UNITED  STATES 
By  R.  S.  Bates 

INDEX  FOSSILS  OF  NORTH  AMERICA 

By  H.  W.  Shimer  and  R.  R.  Shrock 

THE  MOVEMENT  OF  FACTORY  WORKERS 
By  C.  A.  Myers  and  W.  R.  Maclaurin 

ELLIPTIC  CYLINDER  AND  SPHEROIDAL  WAVE  FUNCTIONS 

By  J.  A.  Stratton,  P.  M.  Morse,  L.  J.  Chu,  and  R.  A.  Hutner 

WAVELENGTH  TABLES 

Measured  and  compiled  under  the  direction  of  G.  L.  Harrison 


THE 

PREFABRICATION 
OF 

HOUSES 

A  Study  by  the  Albert  Farwell  Bemis 
Foundation  of  the  Prefabrication  Industry 
in  the  United  States 


By  BURNHAM  KELLY 


PUBLISHED  JOINTLY  BY 
The  Technology  Press  of 

The  Massachusetts  Institute  of  Technology 
AND 

John  Wiley  and  Sons,  Inc.,  New  York 
Chapman  &  Hall,  Ltd.,  London 


COPYRIGHT,  1951 

BY 
THE  MASSACHUSETTS  INSTITUTE  OF  TECHNOLOGY 


All  Rights  Reserved 

This  book  or  any  part  thereof  must  not 
be  reproduced  in  any  form  without 
the  written  permission  of  the  publisher. 


PRINTED  IN  THE  UNITED   STATES  OF  AMERICA 


'.  .  .  he  that  strives  to  touch  the  starres, 
oft  stombles  at  a  strawe" 

EDMUND  SPENSER 

The  Shepheardes  Calender 


Foreword 


Fourteen  years  ago  Albert  Farwell  Bemis  completed  his  important 
trilogy  on  housing,  published  under  the  general  title,  The  Evolving 
House.  The  final  volume  of  this  work,  Rational  Design,  was  largely 
devoted  by  Mr.  Bemis  to  exposition  of  his  modular  theory,  a  theory 
which  has  since  found  wide  application  in  the  standardization  of  the 
dimensions  of  building  materials. 

The  volume  also  contained  a  long  appendix  which  I  had  the  privilege 
of  putting  together  and  which  at  the  time  of  publication  was  perhaps 
the  largest  single  compilation  of  the  efforts  of  various  people  over  the 
years  to  arrive  at  a  design  for  a  factory-made  house. 

This  appendix  had  serious  defects,  and  the  greatest  of  these  was 
one  common  to  the  times,  and  one  from  which  prefabrication  has  not 
yet  escaped,  that  is,  an  inordinate  interest  in  the  engineering  detail  of 
the  various  proposals  and  an  inadequate  interest  in  all  the  other  factors 
which  might  determine  success  or  failure. 

It  is  true  that  I  attempted  to  correct  this  by  publishing  a  list  of 
questions  which  a  hopeful  prefabricator  ought  conscientiously  to  ask 
himself,  but  even  these  were  heavily  weighted  on  the  side  of  design; 
and,  though  the  individual  descriptions  did  attempt  to  state  many 
facts  about  each  proposal,  these  facts  were  obtained  from  the  armchair, 
so  to  speak,  by  using  the  replies  sent  in  by  the  sponsors  themselves. 
Experience  has  shown  that  sponsors  are  universally  overoptimistic. 

In  the  process  of  putting  together  this  appendix,  we  naturally  ac 
cumulated  very  substantial  files  of  information.  Mr.  Bemis  died  in 
1936,  while  his  last  volume  was  in  the  press;  in  1938  Mrs.  Bemis  and 
her  children  established  the  Albert  Farwell  Bemis  Foundation  for 
housing  research  at  the  Massachusetts  Institute  of  Technology.  I  had 
the  honor  to  be  the  first  Director.  The  information  files  came  with  the 
Foundation  to  M.I.T. 

We  had  scarcely  put  together  a  working  team  when  war  came  along 
and  scattered  it.  In  1945  when  some  of  us  came  back  I  was  soon  suc 
ceeded  as  Director  by  Burnham  Kelly,  who  is  the  author  of  this  book. 


VII 


The  interest  in  prefabrication  was  even  more  intense  in  the  postwar 
period  than  it  had  been  in  the  thirties.  The  files  of  the  Bemis  Founda 
tion,  though  far  from  complete,  were  certainly  among  the  largest  in 
the  country.  The  Foundation  was  frequently  sought  out  by  visitors, 
especially  from  abroad,  who  were  seeking  the  truth  about  a  business 
concerning  which  many  half-truths  or  untruths  were  being  said.  In 
the  light  of  this  interest  it  soon  became  apparent  that  we  needed  much 
more  information  than  we  had,  and  of  many  different  kinds,  if  an 
approximation  to  truth  was  going  to  be  possible.  It  was  also  clear  that 
much  of  this  information  could  be  obtained  only  by  personal  observa 
tion  in  the  communities  of  the  various  entrepreneurs.  It  was  this  that 
started  the  Foundation  to  collecting  more  information  by  the  process 
of  field  survey.  It  is  the  results  of  this  field  survey  and  the  conclusions 
which  may  be  drawn  from  them  that  the  reader  will  find  in  this  book. 

Prefabrication,  or  the  factory  manufacture  of  houses,  means  many 
different  things  to  different  people.  To  some  it  is  a  variegated  Gol- 
conda;  the  seeker  for  a  house  who  finds  that  what  he  does  not  want 
costs  more  than  what  he  wants  to  pay  imagines  that  houses  produced 
like  automobiles  or  radios  ought  to  be  nearer  his  heart's  desire;  the 
entrepreneur  imagines  that  he  may  be  another  Ford;  the  manufacturer 
of  conventional  building  materials  wonders  whether  he  may  not  sell 
more  of  these  by  making  them  into  some  sort  of  package;  the  manu 
facturer  of  building  equipment  fancies  that  he  may  have  all  his  latest 
apparatus  in  every  house  if  he  provides  the  package  as  well;  a  national 
president  faced  with  depression  may  look  to  it  as  a  new  industry  to 
lead  from  the  morass;  the  opponent  of  subsidized  housing  may  see  a 
chance  of  arresting  the  tide  if  the  cost  of  the  housing  unit  can  be 
materially  reduced  through  factory  methods.  And  all  these  hopes 
would  have  some  justification  if  only  the  successful  commercial  manu 
facture  of  houses  on  a  large  scale  could  be  achieved. 

To  others  prefabrication  is  a  source  of  fear  and  not  of  hope.  The 
investor  who  is  overcommitted  in  loans  on  real  estate  may  legitimately 
wonder  whether  a  sudden  and  significant  downward  shift  in  the  cost 
of  a  house  may  not  be  disastrous;  the  building-trades  laborer  who 
pursues  an  antiquated  craft  with  little  of  the  joy  of  the  onetime  build 
ing  craftsman  may  fear  technological  unemployment;  the  realtor  who 
is  not  wise  about  real  estate  and  is  really  nothing  more  than  a  peddler 
of  some  one  else's  property  may  have  the  same  apprehension;  and  to 
a  certain  extent  every  present  homeowner  can  share  the  fear  of  the 
investor  although  he  may  display  it  in  an  attitude  towards  the  appear 
ance  of  the  product.  All  these  vested  interests  are  precisely  the  same 
in  kind  as  those  which  have  historically  opposed  every  other  innova- 

viii 


tion  (and  which  in  the  long  run  have  always  lost  out).  And  the 
methods  they  use  to  oppose  are  fundamentally  the  same-the  marshal 
ling  of  adverse  public  opinion,  the  imposition  of  restrictive  legislation, 
the  technique  of  the  strike.  All  their  fears  would  have  some  justifica 
tion  if  successful  commercial  manufacture  on  a  large  scale  came  about 
too  suddenly. 

But  there  are  others,  too,  who  are  interested.  There  are  sincere  en 
gineers  and  inventors  who  think  that  by  application  of  their  personal 
talents  something  socially  important  (and  personally  profitable)  will 
come  about.  There  are  blageurs  who  are  more  interested  in  personal 
publicity  than  in  a  successful  house  and  who,  therefore,  propose  pre 
posterous  but  fascinating  fantasies.  These  take  the  eyes  of  publishers 
who  have  magazines  rather  than  realities  to  retail,  and  they  serve  as 
interesting  table  conversation  among  the  avant  garde;  unfortunately, 
they  also  raise  hopes,  only  to  shatter  them  again.  This  has  been  going 
on  for  a  long  time— too  long. 

It  is  of  course  always  possible  that  some  miraculous  invention  may 
open  the  gates  which  have  so  long  resisted  all  attack,  but  this  seems 
very  unlikely.  It  has  seemed  to  some  that  enormous  investments  of 
capital  might  offer  the  key,  but  that  this  in  itself  is  not  enough  seems 
witnessed  by  some  recent  events.  Some  of  us  have  hoped  that  a  thriv 
ing,  if  small  and  unspectacular,  manufacturer  of  fairly  conventional 
houses,  might,  step  by  step,  year  by  year,  introduce  the  improvements 
in  structure  and  materials  and  the  efficiencies  in  design  and  production 
which  would  gradually  drive  down  the  cost  and  increase  the  market. 
But  none  of  these  things  has  yet  come  about. 

I  have  spent  so  much  discussion  on  what  is  after  all  a  foreword 
largely  as  an  easy  way  of  saying  what  was  wrong  with  my  appendix 
of  1936  and  of  appreciating  the  corrections  which  I  believe  the  reader 
will  find  in  the  present  volume.  It  should  be  of  interest  to  all  those  I 
have  cited  as  having  hopes  or  fears,  to  houseseeker  and  houseowner, 
to  investor  and  realtor,  to  manufacturer  looking  hopefully  beyond  his 
own  range,  to  building-trades  laborer,  to  politician,  and  to  statesman. 
At  the  most  it  may  suggest  how  really  to  open  the  gate;  at  the  least 
it  will  suggest  how  not  to. 

Successful  factory  manufacture  of  houses  will  depend  upon  a  first- 
rate  combination  of  managerial  brains,  financial  acumen,  engineering 
skill,  aesthetic  sensibility,  social  consciousness,  and  marketing  wisdom. 
A  study  of  the  state  of  the  art  stands  therefore  at  the  crossroads  of  the 
applied  physical  and  social  sciences,  an  appropriate  place  for  a  teacher 
at  M.I.T.  to  stand. 


It  is  therefore  a  pleasure  to  say  of  this  book  by  Mr.  Kelly  that  I  be 
lieve  it  has  an  important  message  to  tell.  I  am  gratified  that  he  has 
done  such  a  good  job;  and  I  think  that  Mr.  Bemis,  if  he  were  alive, 
would  be  gratified,  too. 

JOHN  ELY  BURCHARD 
Cambridge,  Massachusetts 
January,  1951 


Preface 


In  the  hope  of  serving  readers  of  widely  varying  interests,  this  book 
has  been  divided  into  three  parts.  The  first  part  is  editorial  in  nature. 
It  includes  a  brief  history  of  the  prefabrication  of  houses  in  the  United 
States,  a  summary  of  the  present  state  of  the  industry,  and  some  specu 
lation  regarding  its  future.  This  material  represents  the  best  judg 
ment  of  the  Bemis  Foundation,  and,  while  it  has  a  broad  basis  in  fact, 
we  have  not  hesitated  to  generalize,  to  extrapolate,  and  to  present  our 
unsupported  opinions. 

The  second  part  of  the  book  can  better  be  described  as  reportorial. 
Here  the  industry  has  been  treated  as  nearly  as  possible  on  a  factual 
basis,  with  opinions  given  only  when  there  is  no  other  way  by  which  a 
trained  observer  may  record  the  facts.  This  material  approaches  the 
status  of  working  data,  and  we  hope  that  it  may  be  used  by  men  wiser 
than  we  to  correct  the  conclusions  reached  in  the  first  part. 

The  third  part  of  the  book  is  a  collection  of  more  detailed  appendix 
material,  not  suitable  for  inclusion  in  the  text,  but  likely  to  prove  use 
ful  to  many  readers. 

We  have  emphasized  throughout  the  book  the  importance  of  treat 
ing  the  prefabrication  of  houses  as  a  complete  pattern  of  operations  of 
which  management,  design,  procurement,  production,  and  marketing 
are  the  major  subdivisions.  Indeed,  the  material  in  the  second  part  is 
so  organized  that  the  reader  will  have  to  look  under  each  of  these 
subdivisions  in  order  to  gather  all  the  information  on  any  one  com 
pany.  To  have  organized  the  material  by  companies,  while  maintain 
ing  this  emphasis,  would  have  meant  endless  repetition  and  a  doubling 
of  the  bulk  of  the  book. 

Far  more  important,  the  full  understanding  of  each  subdivision  of 
the  pattern  of  operations  might  have  been  lost  in  a  company-by- 
company  analysis.  We  hope  to  make  it  abundantly  clear  that  the 
company  which  has  good  design  must  also  have  good  management, 
intelligent  procurement,  efficient  production,  and  effective  marketing 
to  have  any  chance  of  real  success. 

xi 


A  large  part  of  the  material  on  which  the  book  is  based  was  collected 
over  a  period  of  years  in  the  files  of  the  Bemis  Foundation  and  its 
antecedent,  Bemis  Industries,  Inc.  The  backbone  of  this  study,  how 
ever,  was  a  detailed  survey  of  prefabricators  in  the  United  States  which 
was  made  by  the  Foundation  in  1946  and  1947  and  supplemented  by 
an  extended  field  survey  by  our  Research  Assistant,  Herbert  S.  Heaven- 
rich,  Jr.  At  that  time,  there  were  in  the  field  more  prefabricators  and 
would-be-prefabricators  than  there  had  been  ever  before  or  have  been 
since.  With  a  postwar  housing  boom  in  view,  and  with  the  encourage 
ment  of  government  and  financial  circles,  many  of  those  whose  in 
genuity  and  productive  skill  had  proved  valuable  in  the  war  effort 
determined  to  invade  the  field  of  housing.  The  high  noon  of  this 
effort  occurred,  by  chance,  just  at  the  time  of  our  survey.  Through 
good  fortune,  therefore,  we  are  able  to  present  an  analysis  of  some 
general  historical  value. 

We  are  also  fortunate  in  that  relatively  few  new  developments  of 
importance  have  taken  place  during  the  period  required  for  the 
analysis  of  our  information  and  the  preparation  of  this  book.  Recent 
news  in  prefabrication  has  consisted  largely  of  the  failures  of  some 
companies  and  the  continuing  development  of  others  whose  character 
was  already  well  established  in  1947. 

The  work  of  writing  this  book  was  shared  in  large  part  by  the  sev 
eral  Research  Assistants  of  the  Bemis  Foundation. 

The  original  organization  of  the  field  survey  and  the  first  assembly 
of  the  material  in  the  second  part  were  the  work  of  Herbert  S.  Heaven- 
rich,  Jr.  William  F.  Blitzer  helped  to  develop  the  final  form  of  the 
book  and  wrote  drafts  of  many  major  sections  of  it,  including  in  the 
first  part  the  chapters  on  the  history  and  present  state  of  the  industry, 
and  in  the  second  part  the  chapters  on  management,  procurement,  and 
production.  Cyril  C.  Hermann  put  together  the  material  on  marketing, 
and  John  F.  Falkenberg  and  Barbara  W.  Atchley  assisted  in  the  final 
editing  process. 

Many  of  the  concepts  which  are  developed  in  this  book  are  those 
of  John  E.  Burchard,  who  was  Director  of  the  Bemis  Foundation  when 
this  study  was  started,  and  whose  special  knowledge  and  experience 
in  the  field  have  been  of  great  value  to  us.  Although  we  have  made 
many  references  to  his  writings,  it  would  not  be  possible  by  such  means 
to  acknowledge  the  degree  to  which  we  have  benefited  from  his  in 
sight. 

Our  debt  to  those  working  in  the  field,  whether  as  actual  producers 
of  houses  or  in  collateral  positions,  will  be  evident  throughout  the 

fctf 


book.  We  should  like  to  express  our  deepest  gratitude  here,  however, 
for  the  friendly  cooperation  and  intelligent  criticism  which  they  have 
offered  us  from  the  start. 

BURNHAM  KELLY 

Cambridge,  Massachusetts 
January,  1951 


xttt 


Contents 


PART  I  PAGE 

Chapter  1         DEFINITIONS  1 

Chapter  2        THE  DEVELOPMENT  OF  THE  INDUSTRY  5 

I.  Before  1900:  Beginnings  7 

A.  First  Traces  in  America  7 

B.  Early  Prefabrication  in  Cast  Iron  8 

C.  Impetus  of  the  Gold  Rush  9 

D.  Prefabricated  Camp  Buildings  9 

II.  1900-1920:  Developments  in  Precut  and  Concrete 

Construction  11 

A.  The  Precut  House  11 

B.  Early  American  Experimentation  12 

C.  The  Emphasis  on  Concrete  14 

III.  1920-1930:  Experimentation  with  Prefabrication  15 

A.  The  Postwar  Stimulus  Abroad  15 

B.  Experimentation  and  Small-Scale  Development  in 

America  20 

IV.  1930-1940:  Prefabrication  Attains  the  Status  of  a 

Movement  28 

A.  The  Background  Influences  28 

B.  Non-Commercial  Research  and  Development  31 

C.  Government  Activity:  Techniques  and  Standards  33 

D.  Government  Activity:  Prefabricated  Construction  35 

E.  Commercial  Development  by  Private  Enterprise  38 

F.  General  Trends  and  Characteristics  46 

G.  The  Analogy  with  the  Automobile  51 

V.  1940-1945:  The  War  Period  55 

A.  Prefabrication  on  Trial 

B.  Factors  Favorable  to  Prefabrication  57 

C.  Signs  of  Prefabrication's  Growth  58 

D.  The  Contribution  of  Prefabrication  60 

E.  The  Effect  of  the  War  on  Prefabrication  62 

XV 


PAGE 

Chapter  3        1946-1949:  GREAT  EXPECTATIONS  AND  DISAP 
POINTMENTS  65 

I.  Background  67 

A.  The  Shortage  67 

B.  The  Wyatt  Program  68 

C.  The  Birth  and  Death  of  Firms  71 

D.  The  Building  Boom  72 

II.  The  Prefabricator:  A  Stage  in  Industrialization  74 

A.  The  Panelized  Wood  Frame  House  74 

B.  The  Stressed  Skin  Plywood  House  77 

C.  The  Machine-Made  Metal  House  79 

D.  Other  Types  of  Prefabrication  80 

III.  Broad  Aspects  of  Prefabrication  81 

A.  Modular  Coordination  81 

B.  The  Rationalization  of  On-Site  Building  83 

IV.  Prefabrication:  Nature  and  Cost  of  the  Product  84 
V.  Prefabrication:  Current  Problems  86 

A.  Locus  of  Operations  86 

B.  Marketing  87 

C.  Public  Acceptance  89 

D.  Building  Codes  90 

E.  Local  Trade  and  Labor  92 

F.  Financing  92 

VI.  Conclusion  95 

Chapter  4        THE  FUTURE  OF  PREFABRICATION  97 

I.  Introduction  99 

II.  Current  Trends  within  the  Industry  99 

A.  Management  100 

B.  Design  101 

C.  Procurement  106 

D.  Production  108 

E.  Marketing  110 

III.  Future  Problems  within  the  Industry  116 

A.  Central  or  Branch  Plants  117 

B.  Site  or  Factory  Fabrication  117 

C.  Low  Price  or  High  Value  118 

D.  Evolution  or  Revolution  119 

E.  One  Model  or  Many  120 

F.  Optimum  Level  of  Standardization  121 

G.  Duplication  by  the  Conventional  Builder  121 

IV.  Larger  Housing  Issues  122 
A.  The  House  Itself  122 

xvi 


PAGE 

B.  The  Community  128 

C.  Broad  Economic  and  Policy  Problems  131 


V.  Conclusion 


135 


PART  II 

Chapter  5        INTRODUCTION  139 

Chapter  6        MANAGEMENT  143 

I.  Background  145 

II.  Labor  Relations  148 

Labor  Relations  in  the  Plant  148 

A.  Unions  148 

B.  Wages  150 

C.  Restrictive  Practices  153 
Labor  Relations  in  the  Field  155 

III.  Financing  157 

A.  Capitalization  157 

B.  Sources  of  Investment  Capital  159 

C.  Credit  163 

IV.  Public  Relations  168 
V.  Trade  Associations  170 

A.  Prefabricated  Home  Manufacturers'  Institute  170 

B.  National  Association  of  Housing  Manufacturers  172 

Chapter  7        DESIGN  175 

I.  Introduction  177 

II.  Classification  of  Prefabrication  Systems  180 

A.  By  Materials  180 

B.  By  Structural  System  185 

C.  Miscellaneous  Classifications  188 

III.  Description  of  Components  196 

A.  General  196 

B.  Foundations  198 

C.  Floors  202 

D.  Walls  210 

E.  Ceilings  244 

F.  Roofs  253 

IV.  Miscellaneous  Design  Features  262 

A.  Plumbing  262 

B.  Mechanical  Cores  265 

C.  Heating  268 

D.  Electrical  Wiring  and  Fixtures  273 

xvii 


PAGE 

E.  Acoustical  Treatment  274 

F.  Built-in  Furniture  274 

G.  Space  Arrangement  275 
H.  Product  Variety  281 

Chapter  8        PROCUREMENT  287 

I.  Raw  Materials  289 

II.  Finished  Material  and  Equipment  293 

III.  Fabricated  Components  297 

Chapter  9        PRODUCTION  301 

I.  Plant  Facilities  303 

II.  Location  of  the  Industry  304 

III.  Labor  Force  308 

IV.  Factory  Processes  and  Equipment  309 

A.  Wood  309 

B.  Metal  318 

C.  Concrete  321 

D.  Honeycomb  Core  Sandwich  Materials  325 

V.  Some  Particular  Aspects  of  Production  327 

A.  Factory  Storage  Facilities  327 

B.  Plant  Layout  328 

C.  Production  Scheduling  331 

VI.  Analysis  333 

A.  The  Amount  of  Manufacture  by  the  Prefabricator         333 

B.  Production  Volume  and  Production  Costs  338 

C.  Productivity  340 

D.  Production  Costs  344 

Chapter  10      MARKETING  357 

I.  Introduction  359 

II.  Markets  360 

A.  Market  Areas  360 

B.  Special  Market  Types  364 

III.  Pricing  Policies  367 

IV.  Channels  of  Distribution  372 

A.  Factory  Direct  to  Consumer  373 

B.  Factory  to  Dealer  to  Consumer  376 

C.  Factory  to  Distributor  to  Dealer  to  Consumer  382 

V.  Sales  Methods  385 
VI.  Financing  the  Prefabricated  Home  391 

A.  Financing  the  Dealer  392 

B.  Financing  the  Purchaser  394 

xviii 


VII.  Choosing  the  Site 

VIII.  Transportation  to  the  Site 

IX.  Erection  of  Prefabricated  Houses 

X.  Service  to  Customers  after  Erection 

XI.  A  Review  of  Failures 


Chapter  11       CONCLUSION 
Appendix  A        PROCEDURE 


Appendix  B 

Appendix  C 
Appendix  D 


PAGE 
398 

400 
407 
411 
413 

417 

423 


COMPANIES  AND  PEOPLE  VISITED  438 

PREFABRICATORS  MENTIONED  BUT  NOT  VISITED    442 


LISTS  OF  PREFABRICATORS 

ANNOTATED  BIBLIOGRAPHY 
I.  Books  and  Pamphlets 
II.  Conference  Proceedings 

III.  Trade  Association  Material 

IV.  Periodicals 

V.  Other  Sources 


INDEX 


444 

446 
446 
449 
450 
451 
451 

453 


XIX 


List  of  Illustrations 


PAGE 

1.  Skillings  patent  drawings  10 

2.  Precast  concrete  systems  of  the  1920's  22   23 

3.  A  typical  wood  frame  panel  75 

4.  A  typical  stressed  skin  panel  78 

5.  The  principles  of  modular  coordination  82 

6.  Hodgson  houses  following       96 

7.  A  precut  house  of  1920  "              96 

8.  Buckminster  Fuller's  first  Dymaxion  house  "              96 

9.  Early  General  Houses  house  "              96 

10.  Three  prefabricated  houses  of  the  1940's  "              96 

11.  Two  circular  houses  "              96 

12.  A  folding  unit  designed  for  emergency  shelter  "              96 

13.  Lustron  houses  "              96 

14.  Conventional  framing  illustrating  construction  terminology  186 

15.  The  General  Panel  system  192 

16.  The  Acorn  footing  201 

17.  Examples  of  grade  beam  and  concrete  slab  on  grade  209 

18.  Commonly  used  panel  joints  220 

19.  Metal  construction  systems  224,  225 

20.  Sandwich  panel  materials  234 

21.  Southern  California  Homes  house  following     256 

22.  Reliance  house  256 

23.  Section  of  AIROH  house  "            256 

24.  Pierce  Foundation— Cemesto  House  256 

25.  Production  Line  Structures  256 

26.  Wingfoot  house  256 

27.  Acorn  house  256 

28.  The  Fuller  house  256 

29.  Kaiser  Community  Homes  house  256 

30.  Green's  "solar  house"  256 

31.  Patent  drawing  for  the  integrated  Fuller  bathroom  264 

32.  Exploded  drawing  of  Ingersoll  Utility  Unit  266 

33.  Pkns  of  selected  prefabricated  homes  276-279 

34.  The  location  of  prefabrication  plants  in  1948  305 

35.  Ford  house  following     320 

36.  Butler  house 

37.  LeTourneau  system 

38.  Ibec  system  32° 

xxi 


PAGE 

39.  Gunnison  plant  operations  "  320 

40.  National  Homes  plant  operations  320 

41.  Lustron  plant  operations  "  320 

42.  Reliance  plant  operations  "  320 

43.  Crawford  Corporation  "  320 

44.  Texas  Housing  Co.  "  320 

45.  Lustron  plant  flow  diagram  330 

46.  National  Homes  thrift  model  following     416 

47.  Two  other  economy  models  416 

48.  National  Homes  house  being  erected  "  416 

49.  Lustron  house  en  route  416 

50.  National  Homes  house  en  route  "  416 

51.  The  development  of  a  National  Homes  project  416 

52.  Lustron  house  being  erected  "  416 


xxn 


I. 


Part 

Chapter 


DEFINITIONS 


The  term  "prefabrication"  has  often  been  loosely  applied  to  any 
type  of  novel  construction  or  to  any  method  of  building  which  differs 
in  some  significant  respect  from  conventional  construction.  This 
stems  from  the  plain  truth  that  it  is  a  difficult  term  to  define,  as  can  be 
shown  by  a  consideration  of  some  of  the  definitions  which  have  been 
attempted. 

One  of  the  most  general  definitions,  and  one  of  the  most  official,  is 
the  following: 

A  prefabricated  home  is  one  having  walls,  partitions,  floors,  ceilings, 
and/or  roof  composed  of  sections  or  panels  varying  in  size  which  have 
been  fabricated  in  a  factory  prior  to  erection  on  the  building  foundation. 
This  is  in  contrast  to  the  conventionally  built  home  which  is  constructed 
piece  by  piece  on  the  site.1 

Other  writers  try  to  be  more  specific: 

...  It  is  a  question  of  degree.  To  oversimplify,  and  to  look  a  bit  into 
the  future,  if  you  shove  and  snap  a  product  into  place  in  the  field,  that  is 
prefabrication.  If  you  mix,  cut,  spread,  fit,  and  patch— that's  not  pre- 
fabrication.  If  the  field  operation  is  essentially  assembly,  rather  than  manu 
facture,  you  have  prefabrication.  A  brick  and  plaster  wall,  of  course,  em 
ploys  manufactured  ingredients,  but  such  a  wall  is  really  manufactured  in 
the  field. 

The  amount  of  scrap  and  waste  that  must  be  cleaned  up  and  removed 
from  a  building  site  may  be  taken  as  a  rough  index  of  the  degree  of  pre 
fabrication  employed  in  any  given  building  operation,  since  waste  results 
principally  from  a  manufacturing  process,  not  an  assembly  process.2 

Or  are  content  to  be  more  general: 

...  a  movement  to  simplify  construction  by  increasing  the  proportion  of 
work  completed  before  erection.3 

And  a  few  have  been  driven  to  extreme  conclusions: 
Prefabrication  is  a  state  of  mind.4 

1  Prefabricated  Homes,  Commercial  Standard  CS 125-47,  2nd  ed.,  Prefabricated 
Home  Manufacturers'  Institute  and  U.  S.  Department  of  Commerce  (Washing 
ton,  1947),  p.  1. 

2  Howard  T.  Fisher,  "Prefabrication.     What  Does  It  Mean  to  the  Architect?" 
Journal  of  The  American  Institute  of  Architects,  X  (November  1948),  220. 

3  Quoted  in  Proceedings,  American-Soviet  Building  Conference   (held  under 
the  auspices  of  the  Architects  Committee  of  the  National  Committee  of  Ameri 
can-Soviet  Friendship  in  cooperation  with  the  New  York  Chapter  of  the  Ameri 
can  Institute  of  Architects;   published  in  collaboration  with   The  Architectural 
Forum,  1945),  p.  43. 

4  Robert  W.    McLaughlin,   quoted  in   Proceedings,   American-Soviet   Building 
Conference,  p.  43. 


From  these  definitions  it  can  be  seen  that,  in  general  usage, 
"prefabricated"  construction  is  "unconventional,"  but  not  all  "uncc 
ventionar  construction  is  "prefabricated."     Secondly,  there  may 
said  to  be  various  degrees  of  prefabrication,  of  which  precutting  mig 
be  one,  the  fabrication  of  panels  another,  the  construction  of  volun 
enclosing  sections  a  third,  and  the  manufacture  of  a  complete  mob 
dwelling  unit  probably  the  ultimate. 

For  our  part,  we  shall  attempt  no  general  definitions  of  the  ter 
Indeed,  it  is  a  major  argument  of  this  book  that  the  distinction  I 
tween  prefabricated  and  conventional  construction  may  well  becoi 
meaningless  within  the  next  few  decades.  Nevertheless,  it  is  tr 
that  this  study  is  concerned  primarily  with  those  companies  whi 
are  organized  to  manufacture  and  in  some  degree  to  assemble  off  t 
site  one  or  more  of  the  basic  components  of  a  house,  such  as  founc 
tions,  floors,  walls  and  partitions,  ceilings,  and  roofs. 

Some  of  the  houses  produced  in  this  manner  are  completely  conve 
tional  in  final  construction;  it  is  only  the  process  by  which  they  2 
manufactured  and  assembled  which  distinguishes  them  from  t 
product  of  the  local  builder.  A  large  operative  builder,  develop! 
raw  land,  making  bulk  purchases  of  materials  and  equipment,  a: 
building  200  or  more  houses  at  one  time  with  work  crews  which  mo 
from  house  to  house  performing  highly  specialized  functions,  may 
the  end  offer  for  sale  houses  which  are  far  less  conventional  than  the 
of  a  prefabricator. 

In  this  study,  the  operative  builder  is  distinguished  from  the  pi 
fabricator  because  his  houses  are  manufactured  and  assembled  large 
on  the  site,  but  attention  is  called  to  him  because  of  the  efficiency 
some  of  his  methods.    In  the  long  run  he  is  to  be  considered  not 
much  a  competitor  of  the  prefabricator  as  a  potentially  good  custom 


Part      A  • 

£* 


Chapter 


THE  DEVELOPMENT 

OF  THE  INDUSTRY 


This  historical  study  is  concerned  with  prefabrication— and  almost 
exclusively  with  prefabrication  in  the  United  States  as  an  industry, 
rather  than  as  a  trend  or  movement.  It  is  written  from  the  point  of 
view  of  economic  history  rather  than  of  technical  history;  that  is,  pre 
fabrication  is  treated  more  as  an  industrial  development  than  as  a 
succession  of  ideas  about  design.  The  latter  subject  has  been  very 
well  covered  elsewhere.1  This  study  will  concern  itself  with  the  ex 
tent  to  which  these  technical  ideas  were  realized  in  production  and 
the  factors  which  led  to  their  abandonment  or  adoption.  Thus  it  is 
not  so  much  a  discussion  of  invention— the  disclosure  of  a  new  method 
of  achieving  some  technical  objective— as  it  is  of  innovation— the  com 
mercial  introduction  of  a  new  or  improved  product  or  process. 


I.  Before  1900:  Beginnings 


A.  First  Traces  in  America 


A  search  for  the  earliest  historical  evidences  of  prefabrication  would 
lead  us  back  to  the  burnt  clay  bricks  of  the  Mesopotamian  civiliza 
tions,  many  centuries  before  the  Christian  era— perhaps  further.  For 
our  purposes,  however,  it  will  suffice  to  know  that  as  early  as  1624 
the  English  brought  with  them  to  Cape  Ann  a  panelized  house  of 
wood  for  use  by  the  fishing  fleet  and  that  this  house  was  subsequently 
disassembled,  moved,  and  reassembled  several  times.2  In  1727  two 

1  Albert  Farwell  Bemis  and  John  Burchard,  2nd,  The  Evolving  House:  Vol.  Ill, 
Rational  Design  (Cambridge:  The  Technology  Press,  1936). 

Alfred  Bruce  and  Harold  Sandbank,  A  History  of  Prefabrication  (Raritan, 
N.  J.:  The  John  B.  Pierce  Foundation,  1943). 

Housing  Production  II,  or  The  Application  of  Quantity  Production  Technique 
to  Building:  Some  Technical  History  and  Considerations,  Second  Report  of  the 
Committee  for  the  Industrial  and  Scientific  Provision  of  Housing  (London,  1943). 

D.  Dex  Harrison,  J.  M.  Albery,  M.  W.  Whiting,  A  Survey  of  Prefabrication 
([London]:  Ministry  of  Works,  1945).  This  survey  of  prefabrication  designs  is 
among  the  .most  complete  of  its  type.  Frequent  reference  to  it  is  made  in  this 
book. 

2  Charles  E.  Peterson,  "Early  American  Prefabrication/'  Gazette  des  Beaux- 
Arts,  XXXIII  (January  1948),  38. 


houses  "  'all  cut  to  be  erected' " 3  were  exported  from  New  Orleans  to 
the  West  Indies,  and  there  are  other  signs  of  the  use  of  prefabrication 
throughout  the  next  100  years  as  a  means  of  providing  persons  with 
shelter  immediately  on  their  arrival  at  a  new  settlement.4 


B.  Early  Prefabrication  in  Cast  Iron 


Perhaps  the  earliest  metal  prefabricated  house  was  that  built  some 
time  before  1830  for  the  lockkeeper  at  Tipton  Green,  Staffordshire, 
England.  The  walls  were  of  flanged  vertical  cast-iron  panels,  bolted 
together,  painted  on  the  exterior  and  lathed  and  plastered  on  the  in 
terior.5  Cast  iron  was  prominent  in  a  number  of  other  early  experi 
ments  in  prefabrication.  Watt  and  Boulton  in  England  began  erect 
ing  their  cast-iron  framed  factory  buildings  in  180 1,6  and  in  America 
during  the  forties  and  fifties  cast-iron  columns  and  repetitive  elements 
of  cast  iron  and  glass  were  used,  respectively,  for  frame  and  en 
closure,  as  seen  notably  in  the  fagades  of  the  commercial  buildings 
by  James  Bogardus.7  The  use  of  cast  iron  in  prefabrication  reached 
a  spectacular  climax  in  the  Crystal  Palace,  built  in  Hyde  Park,  London, 
in  1851.  Joseph  Paxton  based  the  design  of  this  building  on  a  rela 
tively  few  mass-produced  elements:  glass  panes,  wood  frames  in 
which  these  were  set,  and  cast-  and  wrought-iron  columns  and  girders 
which  were  bolted  together  at  the  site  to  form  the  framework.8  Pro 
claimed  the  largest  single  building  the  world  had  yet  seen,  it  was 
erected  in  a  mere  four  months,9  and,  demountable,  it  was  later  moved 
to  Sydenham  where  it  was  re-erected.  The  Crystal  Palace  was  a 
marvel  for  the  light  and  airy  quality  of  its  structure,  in  some  respects 
a  reflection  of  Paxton's  experience  with  greenhouses,  but  more  than 
this  it  was  a  daring  adventure  in  the  use  of  carefully  designed  fac 
tory-fabricated  components  and  of  precision  rather  than  sheer  mass 
to  achieve  structural  strength. 

8  Loc.  cit. 

*  Loc.  cit. 

5  Harrison  et  al.,  op.  cit.,  p.  3. 

6Sigfried  Giedion,  Space,  Time  and  Architecture  (Cambridge:  Harvard  Uni 
versity  Press,  1941),  pp.  124-7. 

*  Ibid.,  pp.  129-34. 

8  Giedion,  op.  cit.,  p.  186. 

9Tallis's  History  and  Description  of  the  Crystal  Palace,  ed.  by  J.  G.  Strutt, 
in  3  vols.  (London:  The  London  Printing  and  Publishing  Co.  [c.  1851]),  Vol.  I, 
p.  11. 

8 


C.  Impetus  of  the  Gold  Rush 


These,  however,  were  but  sporadic  beginnings.  The  first  real  im 
petus  to  the  production  of  prefabricated  houses  appears  to  have 
been  the  Gold  Rush  of  1848. 10  Houses  were  exported  to  California 
from  our  eastern  seaboard,  from  England,  France,  Germany,  Belgium 
—even  from  China,  New  Zealand,  and  Tasmania.  In  the  New  York 
area  alone  some  5,000  houses  for  shipment  to  California  had  been 
contracted  for  or  produced  by  1850.  Models  which  cost  $400  in  the 
East  sold  for  $5,000  on  the  West  Coast.  And  from  Manchester,  Eng 
land,  came  several  hundred  houses  of  corrugated  galvanized  iron, 
some  of  them  outfitted  with  wallpaper,  carpets,  furniture,  and  water 
closets.  But  the  end  of  this  boom— which  was  the  first  of  several 
which  were  to  push  prefabrication  for  one  reason  or  another— came  in 
1850,  when  the  building  materials  market  in  California  was  flooded 
and  prices  fell  sharply.  After  a  local  lumber  industry  had  developed 
in  response  to  the  huge  demand,  the  high  shipping  cost  quickly  put 
the  imported  prefabricated  house  out  of  the  picture. 


D.  Prefabricated  Camp  Buildings 

New  settlements  provided  one  market  for  early  prefabricators;  the 
demand  for  various  types  of  camp  buildings  and  cottages  provided 
another.  The  continuing  commercial  development  of  panelized  wood 
houses  for  this  market  dates  from  at  least  as  far  back  as  1861.  In  that 
year  Skillings  and  Flint,  lumber  dealers  of  Boston  and  New  York, 
patented  a  system  of  building  houses  from  a  few  standardized  panels 
and  a  number  of  other  interchangeable  parts  (see  Figure  1).  Their 
impressively  bound,  gilt-edged  catalogue  claimed  that  their  houses 
could  be  erected  in  three  hours  and  showed  a  number  of  designs 
suited  to  plantation  and  army  camps.  Indeed,  this  firm  sold  a  good 
many  houses  to  the  Union  Army.11  In  Germany  the  firm  of  Christoph 
&  Unmack,  organized  in  1882,  was  soon  to  begin  production  of  timber 
houses  constructed  of  load-bearing  panels.  Its  products  were  chiefly 
huts,  cabins,  and  labor  camps  and  were  ultimately  to  be  shipped  in 

10  A  very  interesting  account  of  this  boom  in  prefabrication  is  given  by  Peter 
son,  op.  cit.,  pp.  42-6. 

11  Peterson,  op.  cit.,  p.  46. 

9 


Figure  1.     Shillings  Patent  Drawings 


very  large  quantities  to  many  parts  of  the  globe.12  A  decade  later,  in 
1892,  Ernest  F.  Hodgson  founded  his  company  in  Boston  and  began 
the  manufacture  of  panelized  dwellings  of  wood  ( see  Figure  6 ) .  This 
firm,  which  is  the  oldest  known  to  be  still  in  the  industry  today,13 
started  by  making  small  structures  such  as  chicken  houses,  children's 
play  houses,  and  dog  houses.  It  received  a  boost  when,  with  the  ad 
vent  of  the  horseless  carriage,  the  demand  for  "auto  stables"  arose. 
A  further  effect  of  the  automobile  was  to  increase  the  demand  for 
vacation  cottages,  enabling  the  company  to  enlarge  its  operations  and 
furnishing  a  major  part  of  its  business  until  this  day.  This  enterprise 
has  been  a  notable  instance  of  successful  commercial  development 
on  a  conservative  basis.  The  house  remained  of  essentially  conven 
tional  wood  frame  construction,  modified  to  permit  shop  fabrication 
in  panels.  There  was  no  rush  to  get  into  large-scale  production  nor 
any  attempt  to  provide  a  universal  set  of  building  components  adapt 
able  to  any  plan.  Emphasis  was  placed  on  modest  single-story  houses, 
and  sales  were  direct  to  the  customer,  featuring  speedy  erection  and 
good  quality  rather  than  low  cost. 


II.   1900-1920:  Developments  in  Precut  and  Concrete  Con 
struction 


A.  The  Precut  House 


Shortly  after  1900  a  peripheral  development  of  prefabrication  be 
came  commercially  important.  This  was  the  precut  house,  some 
times  referred  to  as  the  "mail-order"  house,  and  in  some  respects  the 
first  of  the  "self-help"  houses  designed  for  owner  erection  (see  Fig 
ure  7).  The  first  decade  of  the  century  saw  the  entrance  into  this 
field  of  a  number  of  firms  which  were  to  become  prominent  in  it: 
The  Aladdin  Co.,  Bay  City,  Mich.;  Gordon-Van  Tine  Company,  Dav 
enport,  la.;  Pacific  Systems  Homes,  Inc.,  Los  Angeles,  Calif.;  Sears, 

12  Harrison  et  al.,  op.  cit.,  case  sheet  on  Christoph  &  Unmack. 

13  The  E.  F.  Hodgson  Co.  was  combined  with  Allied  Housing  Associates,  Inc., 
in  1944  to  form  the  Allied-Hodgson  Housing  Corp.     Each  of  the  original  com 
panies  does  business  as  a  division  of  the  corporation. 

11 


Roebuck  and  Co.,  Newark,  N.  J.  Although  the  mere  precutting, 
notching,  and  marking  of  the  lumber  to  be  used  in  a  wood  frame 
dwelling  might  not  appear  to  deserve  the  name  "prefabrication,"  the 
precut  house  warrants  consideration  here  for  several  reasons.  One  is 
that  the  grading,  cutting,  marking,  and  packaging  of  lumber  and  the 
preassembly  of  windows  and  doors  in  the  precutter's  plant  have  usu 
ally  been  carried  out  on  an  efficient  line  production  basis.  Secondly, 
the  precut  house  has  generally  involved  a  number  of  standardized 
products  in  a  field  that  long  resisted  standardization.  Thirdly,  it  has 
made  possible  the  large-scale  estimating,  purchasing,  and  collecting 
of  materials  (including  roofing,  shingles,  hardware,  etc.)  to  form  a 
house  package  and  has  established  the  fixed  price  character  of  this 
package.  Lastly,  precutting  was,  until  World  War  II,  probably  the 
most  widely  used  application  of  factory  production  to  housing;  "cer 
tainly  a  quarter  of  a  million  houses  have  been  built  according  to  this 
method— a  number  probably  in  excess  of  the  total  number  of  sectional 
and  prefabricated  houses  built  to  date  (1943),  including  the  war 
time  demountables." 14 


B.  Early  American  Experimentation 


It  was  also  about  the  turn  of  the  century  that  early  experimentation 
began  in  America;  it  was  concerned  primarily  with  concrete  as  a  mate 
rial,  and  here  we  may  mention  Grosvenor  Atterbury  as  a  pioneer. 
His  research  in  the  techniques  of  housebuilding  began  in  1902,  first 
at  his  own  expense,  subsequently  with  philanthropic  support  (after 
1907  chiefly  from  the  Russell  Sage  Foundation).  He  has  continued 
until  the  present  day  his  search  for  better  methods  of  construction 
with  cast  cementitious  materials.  About  1907  Atterbury  developed 
a  system  of  large15  precast  hollow-core  panels  for  walls,  floors,  and 
roofs.  Between  1910  and  1918  several  hundred  houses  based  on  this 
system  were  built  for  the  Russell  Sage  Foundation  in  Forest  Hills, 
Long  Island,  the  units  being  transported  to  the  site  in  trucks  and 
erected  there  with  derricks.  This  was  a  significant  experiment  in  a 
new  construction  technique,  yet  the  importance  of  Atterbury 's  work 
lies  not  so  much  in  the  achievement  at  Forest  Hills,  which,  though  of 
high  quality,  was  not  of  radically  low  cost,  but  rather  in  his  approach 

14  Bruce  and  Sandbank,  op.  cit.,  p.  57. 

15  Wall  panels,  for  instance,  were  of  story  height  and  6'  0"  to  8'  0"  wide. 

12 


and  in  the  persistence  which  marked  his  attempt  to  develop  some  sort 
of  casting  process,  a  method  for  which  he  saw  great  promise  in  build 
ing.  His  system— along  with  others  involving  large  precast  concrete 
units— entailed  difficulties  in  the  transportation  and  handling  of  heavy 
units  and  in  the  large  investment  in  molds  which  was  required  be 
cause  of  the  lengthy  curing  period  for  each  casting.  Therefore,  al 
though  a  large-scale  project  such  as  that  at  Forest  Hills  might  over 
come  these  difficulties  economically,  it  was  evident  that  the  system 
was  not  well  suited  to  the  erection  of  isolated  free-standing  houses  or 
small  developments.  To  solve  these  difficulties,  Atterbury  has  since 
experimented  with  various  other  cementitious  materials  and  has  de 
veloped  better  molds  and  worked  out  methods  of  shortening  the  cur 
ing  time. 

Another  development  in  which  Atterbury  pioneered  was  the  growth 
of  interest  in  prefabrication  as  a  means  of  providing  shelter  for  the 
vast  bulk  of  our  housing  needs,  not  for  just  a  few  exceptional  ones. 
Before  the  early  twentieth  century,  the  prefabricated  dwelling  had 
been  of  importance  for  new  settlements,  camp  cabins,  and  vacation 
cottages— uses  in  which  a  decrease  in  site  work  was  desired  even,  if 
necessary,  at  an  increase  in  total  cost.  But  as  the  ever-accelerating 
industrialization  of  our  life  proceeded  along  with  a  great  surge  of 
urbanization,  and  as  our  attitudes  towards  slums  and  blight  changed,16 
it  was  felt  that  house  production  methods  were  falling  far  behind 
industrial  techniques  in  other  fields,  and  prefabrication  came  to  be 
regarded  as  a  means  of  providing  more  economic  shelter  for  the 
mass  of  our  housing  requirements.  There  was  no  overnight  change, 
of  course,  nor  can  the  turning  point  be  placed  with  too  much  certainty 
in  the  first  decade  of  the  century.17  Yet  it  seems  reasonably  clear 
that  after  this  time  the  interest  in  prefabrication  was  connected  less 
and  less  with  a  few  special  housing  markets  and  more  and  more  with 
low  cost  in  the  general  housing  market;  it  was  increasingly  an  interest 
in  the  overall  industrialization  of  house  production  as  an  answer  to 
what  was  gradually  to  become  known  as  "the  housing  problem." 

16  Evidenced  by  the  passage,  between  1870  and  1890,  of  many  municipal  ordi 
nances  governing  the  health  and  safety  standards  of  housing. 

17  Atterbury 's  work  is,  however,   the   earliest  example   our  research  has   dis 
closed  of  philanthropically  supported  experimentation  in  prefabrication;  the  re 
sults,   including  patents,  were  offered  to  any  "non-profit  institution  willing  to 
continue  the  work  along  proper  lines  looking  towards  a  scientific  solution  of  the 
housing  problem."     (Quoted  from  a  statement  by  Atterbury  submitted  to  A.  F. 
Bemis  in  1935,  files  of  the  Bemis  Foundation.) 


13 


C.  The  Emphasis  on  Concrete 


The  work  of  Atterbury  was  by  no  means  the  only  experimentation 
with  novel  housebuilding  methods  during  the  first  two  decades  of  the 
century.18  Many  of  the  other  attempts  also  employed  concrete  and 
generally  involved  but  little  prefabrication;  they  were  limited  to  the 
precasting  of  wall  units  or  the  use  of  factory-produced  forms.  In 
1908  Thomas  Edison  proposed  a  method  of  casting  two-  and  three- 
story  houses  in  one  operation.  Sectional  cast-iron  forms  were  to  be 
bolted  together  at  the  site,  and  concrete,  carried  by  a  conveyer,  was 
to  be  poured  into  a  funnel  at  the  top  of  the  enclosure.  Edison's  idea 
attracted  a  good  deal  of  attention  but  was  soon  abandoned  as  im 
practical.  Yet  it  is  interesting  to  note  that  the  monolithic  concrete 
house  is  still  a  subject  of  considerable  interest  and  is  today  being  car 
ried  out  in  single-story  dwellings  with  equipment  at  least  as  complex 
as  Edison  proposed.19  Other  ideas  were  to  follow:  the  Merrill  Sys 
tem  of  monolithic  concrete  walls  formed  in  situ  (1908);  Simpson 
Craft,  a  complete  house  system  of  concrete,  about  90%  precast  ( 1917 ) ; 
Lakeolith,  the  precast  ribbed  panel  system  of  Simon  Lake,  the  sub 
marine  designer  (1918);  the  Hahn  Concrete  Lumber  System  of  pre 
cast  and  site-formed  concrete  (1919).20  Some  hundreds,  perhaps  a 
few  thousand,  houses  have  been  produced  by  these  and  similar 
concrete  constructions,  but  no  one  system  has  ever  been  adopted  on  a 
mass-production  basis.  The  early  experimental  work  in  concrete 
did  not  develop  any  fully  realized  techniques;  it  was  rather  a  sign- 
perhaps  the  first  sign— of  the  growing  interest  in  the  invention  of  pre 
fabrication  systems;  it  was  in  a  sense  the  forerunner  of  what  we  call 
the  prefabrication  movement.21 

18  Bemis  and  Burchard,  op.  cit.t  p.  61T,  list  nine  other  examples. 

19  For  example,  R.  G.  LeTourneau  Inc/s  Tournalayer  and  Ibec  Housing  Cor 
poration's  house-sized  form. 

20  For  further  information  on  these  and  other  systems  see  Report  on  Survey  of 
Concrete  House  Construction  Systems,  Portland  Cement  Association   (Chicago, 
1934);  also  works  cited  in  footnote,  p.  7. 

21  Bruce  and  Sandbank,  op.  cit.,  pp.  30-40. 


14 


III.   1920-1930:  Experimentation  with  Prefabrication 


A.  The  Postwar  Stimulus  Abroad 


We  have  passed  over  the  World  War  I  period  because,  unlike  the 
recent  war  years,  it  was  not  very  important  to  prefabrication.  The 
production  of  precut  and  to  some  extent  of  panelized  wood  buildings 
was  stimulated,  but  prefabrication  as  an  industrial  development  was 
not  appreciably  promoted  or  advanced.  The  postwar  years,  however, 
did  bring  a  strong  stimulus  to  prefabrication,  chiefly  in  Europe. 
While  America  continued  to  experiment  with  prefabrication,  Europe, 
by  contrast,  built  with  it,  and  we  might  digress  for  a  moment  to 
consider  what  was  accomplished  there  and  why. 


1.  Great  Britain 

The  earliest  developments  were  in  Great  Britain,  where  the  hous 
ing  shortage,  the  dearth  of  bricks  and  of  bricklayers  and  other  crafts 
men,  and  the  surplus  of  steel  capacity  all  combined  to  provide  a  strong 
economic  motivation  for  trying  new  methods  of  building.  Most  of 
the  British  preferred  brick,  but  alternative  constructions  had  to  be 
available  in  case  of  trouble,  so  that  the  government  could  perform 
on  its  promise  of  "homes  for  heroes." 

By  1920,  the  Ministry  of  Works  had  approved  some  110  systems 
of  construction,  of  which,  excluding  systems  of  concrete  masonry, 
perhaps  12  involved  some  degree  of  prefabrication,  though  not  even 
all  these  reached  the  production  stage.22  There  were  no  standards 
of  functional  performance  employed,  nor  were  the  systems  approved 
necessarily  cheap  or  easy  to  erect.  Rather,  the  emphasis  was  on 
meeting  the  situation  described  above,  and  so,  between  the  years 
1918  and  1925,  a  large  number  of  partially  prefabricated  houses  were 
built  of  elements  such  as  sheet  steel,  rolled  steel  frames,  concrete 
masonry,  story-height  precast  concrete  units,  and  expanded  metal 
sprayed  with  cement.  The  last  type  of  construction,  combined  with 

22  Harrison  et  al.,  op.  cit.,  p.  5. 

15 


a  steel  frame,  formed  the  basis  of  the  Dorlonco  house,  some  10,000 
of  which  were  built  in  England  between  1920  and  1928.23  Many  later 
proved  defective  in  that,  because  of  insufficient  cover,  the  metal  lath 
rusted  and  the  cement  rendering  cracked  and  fell  off.  In  the  years 
following  1918  some  10,000  concrete  houses  were  erected  by  four  big 
industrial  concerns  using  either  precast  pier  and  panel  construction 
or  precast  slabs  to  enclose  a  site-poured  frame,  and  from  1926  to 
1928  another  big  corporation,  G.  and  J.  Weir,  Ltd.,  built  3,000  houses, 
using  timber  frame,  steel  plates,  and  fiberboard— materials  relatively 
rare  in  British  housing.  It  is  important  to  note  that  until  World  War 
II,  with  the  exception  of  the  precut  and  possibly  certain  panelized, 
but  otherwise  conventional,  wood  frame  houses,  no  American  pre- 
fabrication  system  was  produced  as  extensively  as  the  Weir  and  Dor 
lonco  houses. 

Yet  even  with  such  extensive  trials,  all  these  prefabrication  systems 
fell  into  general  disuse  between  1926  and  1930.  For  one  thing,  there 
was  labor  trouble  in  connection  with  the  Weir  houses  because  of  the 
fact  that  engineering  union  labor  was  used  at  lower  wage  rates  than 
unskilled  building-trades  labor;  as  a  result  the  building  trades  refused 
to  work  for  any  local  authority  which  erected  Weir  houses.  But, 
more  than  this,  it  is  important  to  understand  that  the  prefabricated 
houses  were  considered  as  makeshifts  and,  at  least  in  part,  as  pawns 
in  the  struggle  with  conventional  building  labor.  When  the  shortage 
was  overcome  and  the  normal  building  methods  could  handle  the  de 
mand,  few  prefabricated  houses  were  built.  They  had  not  proved 
cheaper  than  the  brick  houses  in  whose  stead  they  were  being  built, 
and  they  could  not  compete  on  even  terms  because  of  the  prejudice 
against  them  as  being  new,  untried,  and  substitute  products. 

.  .  .  the  new  types  were,  in  design,  mostly  inferior  imitations  of  brick 
buildings.  No  attempt  had  been  made  to  evolve  designs  which  suited, 
and  took  advantage  of,  the  new  structural  concepts.  So  utterly  bankrupt 
was  the  movement  in  this  respect  that  the  new  constructions  were  labori 
ously  worked  to  the  same  niggling  plans  which  were  in  common  use  for 
brick  houses  at  the  same  time.  It  was  not  realized,  and  it  is  still  not 
realized,  that  plans  and  designs  suitable  for  brick  buildings,  which  can  be 
cut  and  chopped  about  in  extraordinary  detail,  are  totally  unsuited  to  the 
factory-made  articles  of  standardized  size  which  require  the  clearest  and 
simplest  planning  for  their  economical  use.24 

This  statement  might  well  form  the  epilogue  to  a  number  of  other 
essays  in  prefabrication. 

2*Ibid.,  case  sheet  on  Dorlonco. 

24  D.  Dex  Harrison,  "An  Outline  of  Prefabrication,"  in  Tomorrow's  Houses, 
ed.  by  John  Madge  (London:  Pilot  Press,  1946),  pp.  118-9. 

16 


2.  Germany 

The  Germans,  because  of  the  economic  consequences  of  the  war, 
did  not  begin  to  experiment  with  prefabrication  on  a  large  scale  until 
about  1926,  by  which  time  the  British  were  already  returning  to  con 
ventional  building  methods.  As  in  Britain,  however,  the  necessity 
of  providing  housing  under  abnormal  conditions  brought  into  effect 
many  new  approaches.  A  large  experimental  program,  exceeding  in 
scale  anything  attempted  previously  in  any  country,  was  carried  out 
under  the  direction  of  the  State  Research  Institute  ( Reichsforschungs- 
gesellschaf t ) ,  a  government  department  charged,  among  other  duties, 
with  organizing  and  controlling  building  throughout  Germany.  Many 
new  schemes  for  low-cost  housing  construction  were  tried,  and  the 
costs  and  physical  results  compared.  A  big  slump  in  the  steel  trade 
in  1927  left  Vereinigte  Stahlwerke,  the  German  steel  trust,  with  con 
siderable  excess  capacity  and  the  desire  to  seek  new  outlets.  As  a 
consequence,  this  trust  introduced  a  number  of  different  steel  systems 
of  three  principal  types:  close-spaced  frame,  open-spaced  frame,  and 
load-bearing  panels.  The  Germans  did  not  build  as  many  steel  houses 
as  the  British,  but  they  evolved  more  systems.  Their  development 
of  concrete  construction  involved  the  introduction  of  various  aggre 
gates  such  as  clinker,  foamed  slag,  and  pumice,  which  were  often  pre 
cast  into  large  story-height  wall  panels  to  be  hoisted  by  crane  into 
place  within  a  structural  steel  framework.  The  way  in  which  con 
crete  and  steel  were  used  was  largely  influenced  by  the  fact  that 
much  of  the  housing  built  was  in  the  form  of  apartment  houses  going 
to  three  or  more  stories,  and  thus  prefabrication  was  put  on  a  much 
wider  basis  than  in  Britain,  where  it  was  restricted  largely  to  single- 
family  houses,  or  in  America,  where  the  concentration  was  on  single- 
story,  single-family  houses.  British  writers  conclude  that  "when  pre 
fabrication  is  thus  applied  to  large  buildings  it  escapes  the  stigma  of 
cheapness  and  nastiness  and  the  development  is  of  much  more  funda 
mental  importance,  invading  as  it  does  the  whole  fabric  of  the  build 
ing  trade."  25  It  should  also  be  mentioned  that  by  1929  Hugo  Stinnes 
and  Hugo  Junkers,  two  major  German  industrialists,  were  consider 
ing  industrial  methods  for  improving  housing  production.  Junkers, 
the  expert  in  aeronautics,  was  making  elaborate  experiments  in  air 
plane-like  stressed  skin  construction. 

Unfortunately  the  fine  pioneer  work  of  the  Germans  with  metals 
and  concrete,  much  of  which  was  leading  to  substantial  cost  reduc- 

25  Harrison  et  al.,  op.  cit.,  p.  8. 

17 


tions,  was  curtailed  by  the  depression  in  1932  and  completely  halted 
when  the  Nazis  came  to  power  in  1933.  The  use  of  steel  for  house 
building  was  prohibited,  and  all  civil  building  was  limited  by  the 
channeling  of  resources  to  the  construction  of  fortifications  and  mili 
tary  and  party  buildings.  In  addition,  the  rational  approach  to  build 
ing  was  condemned,  and  it  was  decreed  that  "Germanic"  ideals  were 
to  be  reflected  in  new  construction. 


3.  France 

The  French,  faced,  like  the  British,  with  a  well-rooted  conventional 
architecture,  appear  to  have  begun  their  prefabrication  efforts  rela 
tively  late.  Their  structural  engineers  were  making  great  advances, 
but  in  such  other  directions  as  the  development  of  reinforced  concrete. 
In  the  year  1927,  however,  the  steel  industry  started  to  sponsor  sys 
tems  which  used  steel  for  interior  and  exterior  wall  surfaces.  Some 
of  the  units  were  similar  to  those  introduced  in  America  in  the  early 
thirties,  and  there  were  also  steel  frame  structures  and  structures  of 
stucco  on  metal  lath,  the  last  being  developed  with  more  success 
than  marked  the  British  projects  of  the  same  type.  A  development  re 
lated  to  prefabrication  was  the  move  to  standardize  and  coordinate 
the  dimensions  of  various  building  elements,  which  received  an  early 
start  in  France,  for  beginning  in  1929  the  Ministry  of  Commerce  pro 
moted  a  campaign  towards  this  end.  This  was  of  importance  to  pre 
fabrication  in  its  broadest  sense  because  it  was  pointed  towards  the 
elimination  of  cutting  and  fitting  at  the  site  and  a  consequent  relative 
shift  of  work  to  the  factory.  Several  architectural  competitions  in 
the  thirties,  out  of  which  emerged  a  number  of  proposed  prefabrica 
tion  systems,  revealed  that  the  ideas  of  standardization  and  modular 
design26  were  gaining  acceptance  to  a  substantial  degree.27 

2«  See  below,  p.  24. 

27  Probably  the  most  widely  known  of  the  French  prefabrication  efforts  was 
the  system  of  the  engineer  Eugene  Mopin,  used  in  the  construction  of  multistory 
apartments  in  several  large  projects  in  and  about  1934.  The  Mopin  system,  a 
combination  of  prefabrication  and  site  fabrication,  consisted  of  a  light  steel  frame 
encased  in  concrete  with  intermediate  posts  of  precast  reinforced  concrete  and 
external  walls  of  precast  vibrated  concrete  slabs  keyed  into  the  posts.  Though 
the  buildings  have  been  criticized  for  poor  sound-  and  thermal-insulation  quali 
ties,  they  were  perhaps  the  most  significant  experiment  of  the  decade  in  precast 
construction. 

18 


4.  Sweden 

Meanwhile,  in  Sweden  designers  made  use  of  local  materials  to 
meet  their  problems.  In  contrast  to  Britain  and  France,  Sweden  had 
an  abundance  of  timber  and  prefabrication  systems  were  evolved  in 
terms  of  this  material  and,  in  the  early  years,  a  not  very  economical 
use  of  it.  By  1923  technicians  had  introduced  prefabricated  houses 
of  wood  to  meet  the  extensive  housing  shortage  which  developed 
after  World  War  I.  A  major  interest  in  the  Swedish  prefabrication 
experience  lies  in  the  role  of  the  municipal  government  of  Stockholm 
which,  through  its  planning  of  land  use,  its  provision  of  credit,  and 
its  self-help  plan,  encouraged  the  use  of  prefabrication  for  the  hous 
ing  of  families  of  low  and  moderate  incomes.  The  most  interesting 
feature  of  this  program  was  that  the  occupying  family  itself  often 
supplied  the  unskilled  labor  needed  in  the  building  process.  The  city 
provided  plans  and  skilled  labor,  such  as  carpenters,  plumbers,  and 
electricians,  for  a  reasonable  fee  and  furnished  guidance  to  the 
family,  who  made  the  excavation,  laid  up  the  cement-block  basement 
walls,  helped  the  skilled  craftsmen  erect  the  shell  and  install  the 
utilities,  and  carried  out  much  of  the  final  finishing  work. 

The  prefabrication  systems  were  all  similar  in  their  main  character 
istics:  wood  framed,  load-bearing  panels  surfaced  externally  and  in 
ternally  with  vertical  tongue  and  groove  boards  and  filled  with  an  in 
sulating  material  such  as  sawdust.  This  was  hardly  a  pattern  suited 
to  lands  where  wood  is  a  relatively  scarce  or  costly  material  (and 
this  includes  even  the  United  States).  The  panels  were  delivered 
complete  with  doors  and  windows,  were  the  full  height  of  the  house, 
and  came  in  various  widths  to  suit  a  number  of  designs.  They  were 
in  general  extremely  heavy.  Standards  were  high,  and  maintenance 
has  since  proved  economical.  Involving  as  it  did  municipal  owner 
ship  of  land,  municipal  home  financing,  and  municipal  provision  of 
many  building  services,  this  program  represented  the  most  compre 
hensive  public  assistance  to  prefabrication  to  that  date. 

The  self-help  scheme  was  successful  enough  to  persuade  private 
contractors  to  offer  the  same  service  to  homebuilders  who  were  plan 
ning  to  live  on  either  privately  or  municipally  owned  land;  "in  fact, 
the  majority  of  small  houses  built  in  the  garden  suburbs  on  the  'self- 
help'  plan  have  been  constructed  by  private  builders.  But  having 
pioneered  in  this  method,  the  city  continues  its  program,  constructing 
on  an  average  of  three  hundred  dwellings  a  year/' 28 

28  John  Graham,  Jr.,  Housing  in  Scandinavia  (Chapel  Hill:  University  of  North 
Carolina  Press,  1940),  p.  67. 

19 


More  than  3,000  self-help  houses  were  built  under  the  municipal 
plan  alone  between  1927  and  1940.29 


B.  Experimentation  and  Small-Scale  Development  in  America 


Returning  to  a  consideration  of  what  was  happening  in  America 
during  the  twenties,  we  note  at  once  the  difference  in  the  role  of 
government  as  compared  with  Europe.  Whereas  abroad  there  were 
various  types  of  public  stimulus  to  prefabrication— public  housing, 
government-supported  research  and  development,  government  en 
couragement  of  modular  design— here  there  was,  except  for  a  small 
simplification  and  standardization  program  of  the  U.  S.  Bureau  of 
Standards,  no  federal  interest  in  prefabrication  as  such,  or  in  re 
lated  developments.  We  were  in  the  midst  of  prosperity  and  a  record- 
making  building  boom.  Neither  the  government  nor  any  of  the  big 
corporations  associated  with  the  building  industry  had  reason  to  push 
prefabrication,  and  consequently  development  in  this  field  was  car 
ried  on  by  a  handful  of  crusading  individuals  and  small  companies 
with  limited  financial  resources. 


1.  Work  in  Concrete 

In  the  first  part  of  the  decade  the  interest  was  primarily  in  the  ap 
plication  of  concrete  to  small-house  construction  both  by  on-site  meth 
ods—which  really  involved  little  or  no  prefabrication— and  by  use  of 
precast  elements  (see  Figure  2).  Instances  of  the  latter  type  were 
several  systems  of  story-height  units  of  precast  reinforced  concrete: 
Armostone  (1920),  Moore  Unit  (1920),  and  Tee-Stone  (1923).  Only 
the  last  of  these  systems  involved  more  than  the  walls  of  the  dwelling; 
floors,  ceilings,  and  roofs  were  handled  in  a  conventional  manner,  and, 
as  was  the  case  with  almost  all  the  early  proposals,  no  attention  was 
devoted  to  the  mechanical  equipment  of  the  house.  It  is  probable 
that  a  total  of  not  more  than  500  houses  was  built  by  means  of  these 
systems.  Meanwhile  Grosvenor  Atterbury  was  continuing  his  work, 
which  from  1919  to  1921  was  being  carried  out  in  a  laboratory  sup 
ported  by  the  American  Car  and  Foundry  Co.  The  conclusion 

*'Ibid.,p.  59. 

20 


reached  here  was  that  while  a  casting  process  was  a  sound  solution 
to  the  problem,  further  development  by  a  non-profit  agency  was 
necessary  before  a  commercial  enterprise  could  be  successfully  under 
taken. 

It  should  be  noted  that  while  these  and  subsequent  developments 
in  the  use  of  large  precast  units  were  proceeding,  the  role  of  concrete 
in  low-cost  single-family  dwellings  increased  significantly  through  the 
use  of  16"  X  8"  X  8"  concrete  blocks.  Such  blocks,  involving  but 
slightly  more  prefabrication  than  bricks,  have,  through  the  years, 
been  accepted  to  the  point  where  they  form  the  basis  of  more  than 
one-tenth  of  our  annual  housing  production.30 


2.  Research  by  Bemis 

It  was  early  in  the  decade  (1921)  that  Albert  Farwell  Bemis,  a 
Boston  industrialist,  began  the  sponsorship  of  research  in  prefabrica 
tion.  Through  Bemis  Industries,  Inc.,  Mr.  Bemis  owned  and  con 
trolled  a  number  of  concerns  manufacturing  building  materials  and 
products.  Among  these,  the  Housing  Company  was  equipped  to 
fabricate  and  erect  houses  and  other  buildings  by  either  conventional 
or  novel  means,  while  Bemis  Industries  itself  maintained  a  laboratory 
and  staff  devoted  to  research  in  housing.  For  the  next  10  years,  a 
period  during  which  prefabrication  was  quite  removed  from  the 
limelight,  Bemis  Industries,  Inc.,  studied  building  materials  and  struc 
tural  methods  in  its  laboratories  and  in  the  field,  experimenting  with 
a  large  number  of  different  types  of  construction.31  Its  research  pro 
gram  comprised  three  stages:  development  of  a  scheme  on  paper; 
laboratory  construction  and  testing  of  a  full-size  section;  and  finally, 
if  justified,  the  building  of  a  house  to  test  the  new  method  for  physi 
cal  performance  and  cost.  Although  the  program  proceeded  by  fun 
damentally  logical  considerations  from  one  scheme  to  the  next,  it  is 
perhaps  fair  to  remark  that  the  successive  attempts  were  too  little  re 
lated  to  one  another.  The  lack  of  continuity  in  approach  may  be 
noted  when  we  consider  that  the  22  systems  which  were  tried  in 
cluded  such  elements  as  solid  wood  panels,  plywood  panels,  concrete 
poured  in  situ,  precast  gypsum  blocks,  precast  gypsum  slabs,  gypsum 
tubes,  an  excelsior-magnesite  material  known  as  "Acoustex,"  steel 

30  Bruce  and  Sandbank,  op.  cit.,  p.  40. 

31  For  a  summary  of  this  work,  see  John  Burchard  II,  "Research  Findings  of 
Bemis  Industries,  Inc.,"  Architectural  Record,  75  (January  1934),  3-8. 

21 


PIE-CAST  SLA5S 


TIE    I 


EXTUIOH  SU& 


&USPACC 


Figure  2.     Precast  Concrete  Systems  of  the  1920's: 
(1)  Frank  Lloyd  Wright 


MAILING    SIMPS 
ATTACHED    WHEN 
UNIT    IS  CAST 


PfcE-CAST 

fcEIH  FOUCED 

TEE   UNITS 


Figure  2.     Precast  Concrete  Systems  of  the  1920's: 
(2)  Tee-stone 


frames,  and  steel  panels— a  pretty  fair  sampling  of  all  the  then-known 
construction  materials.  During  the  twenties,  so  far  as  we  know,  Bemis 
Industries,  Inc.,  spent  more  time,  money,  and  effort  on  this  type  of 
research  than  any  other  single  organization.  With  the  advent  of  the 
depression,  however,  it  was  forced  to  curtail  its  activities  somewhat, 
and  from  1931  until  Bemis'  death  in  1936  effort  was  concentrated  on 
developing  new  materials  in  the  laboratory  (particularly  a  material 
which  would  at  once  provide  structural  strength,  insulation,  and  sur 
face  finish)  and  on  the  development  of  his  cubical  modular  method 
of  design.  If  none  of  the  systems  developed  by  Bemis  Industries, 
Inc.,  was  ever  exploited  commercially  on  a  large  scale,  it  is  nonetheless 
true  that  its  contribution  was  a  significant  one,  for  the  development 
work  on  materials  and  structural  methods,  particularly  on  joints, 
provided  a  good  deal  of  practical  material  for  those  who  were  en 
gaged  in  technical  problems. 

Mr.  Bemis'  cubical  modular  method  of  design  evolved  from  his 
work  towards  better  and  more  flexible  coordination  of  structural  com 
ponents.  He  concluded  early  in  his  researches  that  a  fundamental, 
all-inclusive  basis  must  be  established  which  would  coordinate  the 
dimensions  of  all  structural  components,  building  materials,  and  in 
stalled  equipment.  The  cubical  modular  method  was  developed  as  a 
theory  of  design,  but  simultaneously  its  practicability  was  proved  by 
applying  it  to  a  variety  of  materials  and  constructions  in  experimental 
houses  which  were  built  and  sold.  This  objective  explains  some  of  the 
discontinuity  in  construction  ideas  referred  to  in  the  previous  para 
graph. 

A  theoretical  discussion  of  the  cubical  modular  method  is  given  in 
The  Evolving  House,32  Vol.  Ill,  Rational  Design.  The  method  re 
quires  that  the  space  occupied  by  the  building  be  considered  as  a 
continuum  of  cubes  formed  by  parallel  lines  in  each  of  the  three  di 
mensions,  and  spaced  on  a  standard  module  for  building  layout  and 
assembly  details.  Mr.  Bemis  showed  that,  in  order  to  permit  a  maxi 
mum  of  freedom,  the  basic  module  should  have  a  length  of  the  order 
of  magnitude  of  a  wall  thickness,  and  he  chose  4"  as  the  unit  most 
consistent  with  existing  products  and  practices  (as,  for  example,  the 
16"  spacing  of  studs  in  wood  frame  walls ) .  He  further  demonstrated 
that  the  4"  module  could  provide  the  basis  for  a  sound  standardiza 
tion  of  all  dimensioned  building  products  with  at  least  as  great  flexi 
bility  of  building  layout  as  was  available  with  former  "stock"  sizes. 

32  Albert  Fanvell  Bemis  and  John  Burchard,  2nd,  The  Evolving  House:  Vol.  I, 
A  History  of  the  Home;  Vol.  II,  The  Economics  of  Shelter;  Vol.  III.  Rational 
Design  (Cambridge:  The  Technology  Press,  1933;  1934;  1936). 

24 


The  first  large  commercial  application  of  the  method  was  made  in 
1937  by  Homasote  Co.  with  technical  assistance  from  Bemis  Indus 
tries,  Inc.  The  modular  details  developed  for  its  Precision-Built  con 
struction  enabled  Homasote  to  produce  any  house  designed  on  the 
4"  modular  basis  by  relatively  simple  jig  cutting  and  assembly  methods. 

In  1938  the  heirs  of  Mr.  Bemis  founded  Modular  Service  Associa 
tion  as  a  non-profit  corporation  to  help  the  building  industry  in  de 
veloping  dimensional  coordination.  The  industry  effort  was  organized 
under  the  voluntary  committee  procedure  of  the  American  Standards 
Association  and  is  known  as  ASA  Project  A62,  with  the  American  In 
stitute  of  Architects  and  The  Producers'  Council,  Inc.,  as  joint  sponsors. 
Through  Project  A62  the  industry  has  adopted  the  cubical  modular 
method  as  the  American  Standard  Basis  for  Dimensional  Coordina 
tion,  with  appropriate  changes  in  terminology.  The  method  is  called 
"modular  coordination/'  and  the  "modular  lines  used  as  a  design 
matrix"  have  become  the  "standard  grid  to  which  building  plans  and 
assembly  details  are  referenced."  The  standard  module  is  4".  The 
objectives  of  modular  coordination  are  discussed  on  p.  81. 

Through  his  work  on  modular  design  Bemis  gave  impetus  to  a 
much-needed  movement  in  building,  one  which  was  to  serve  prefabri- 
cation  through  the  elimination  of  much  cutting  and  fitting  at  the  site 
and  which  was  to  find  added  support  from  architects,  building  mate 
rials  manufacturers,  and  the  government  as  time  went  on.  Last,  but 
not  least,  was  his  contribution  in  The  Evolving,  House,  an  exhaustive 
study  which,  in  treating  modular  design  and  prefabrication  seriously 
for  perhaps  the  first  time,  gave  these  ideas  real  form  and  stature. 


3.  Early  Steel  Systems 

During  the  latter  part  of  the  decade  several  steel  frame  systems 
were  introduced,  but  these  were  not  of  great  significance.  Those 
sponsored  by  the  McClintic-Marshall  Corporation  and  the  Gary  Struc 
tural  Steel  Corp.,  for  instance,  entailed  prefabrication  only  of  the 
framing  members  and  used  these  with  the  close  spacing  typical  of  a 
wood  frame  structure.  Consequently,  little  if  any  economy  was 
achieved;  instead  the  emphasis  of  the  proponents  of  such  systems 
was  on  the  superiority  of  steel  over  wood  from  the  points  of  view  of 
strength,  fire  resistance,  and  dimensional  stability.  Furthermore, 
since  the  interest  of  the  sponsor  did  not  usually  extend  beyond  the 

25 


frame,  there  was  the  problem  of  overcoming  the  inertia  of  builders 
and  of  persuading  them  to  depart  from  established  practice  for  only  a 
part  of  the  structure,  especially  when  the  use  of  collateral  materials 
may  have  offered  some  problems.  The  steel  framed  house  of  more 
recent  design  tended  to  use  this  material  economically,  taking  ad 
vantage  of  its  various  properties  and  more  efficiently  integrating  the 
frame  with  the  rest  of  the  structure. 


4.  The  Radical  Approach 

One  of  the  most  interesting  designs  of  the  period  was  Buckminster 
Fuller's  Dymaxion  house  (1927)  (see  Figure  8)— interesting  not  so 
much  because  of  the  details  of  the  house  itself,  which  in  its  original 
form  never  progressed  beyond  the  model  stage,  as  because  of  the  ap 
proach  to  the  problem.  Fuller  serves  as  the  symbol  of  a  group  of  men 
who  have  thought  of  prefabrication  in  quite  basic  terms  and  have 
emerged  with  the  conclusion  that  the  design  of  the  house  must  be 
fundamentally  altered  if  we  are  adequately  to  meet  the  housing  prob 
lems  of  our  civilization— that,  in  certain  respects  at  least,  revolution 
rather  than  evolution  is  necessary.  Such  a  group  should  include, 
among  others,  those  who  have  speculated  about  houses  suspended 
from  a  central  mast:  the  Bowman  brothers,  George  Fred  Keck,  Eero 
Saarinen,  Richard  Neutra,  Peter  Pfisterer,  and,  of  course,  Fuller  him 
self;  about  externally  suspended  houses:  Paul  Nelson,  Keck,  and  Leland 
Atwood;  about  hemispherical  houses  of  monocoque  construction: 
Martin  Wagner  and  Wallace  Neff;  about  various  types  of  mobility  in 
housing— the  trailer  house,  the  folding  house,  the  sectional  house:  Cor- 
win  Willson,  William  B.  Stout,  Temple  H.  Buell,  Carroll  A.  Towne, 
Carl  Koch,  and  John  Bemis.  This  is  not  a  complete  list,  nor  were  all 
these  designers  thinking  in  terms  of  low-cost  housing  or  the  indus 
trialized  production  of  housing,  although  most  of  their  schemes  did 
involve  a  good  deal  of  prefabrication.  The  kinship  they  bear  to 
Fuller  is  in  their  attitude  towards  design,  and  it  is  this  attitude  that  is 
the  important  thing  about  the  Dymaxion  house,  not  that  it  was  to  be 
suspended  by  wires  from  a  central  mast,  or  that  it  was  to  be  hexa 
gonal  in  plan,  or  that  it  was  to  be  air  conditioned,  have  an  automatic 
laundry,  and  a  self-contained  waste-disposal  unit.  Indeed,  it  was  as 
an  attitude  that  Fuller  himself  later  characterized  the  house: 

An  attitude  to  think  truthfully.     To  think  truthfully  in  the  terms  of  the 
latest  achievements  of  the  intellect,  quite  unfettered  by  history's  relatively 

26 


temporary  national,  political  and  aesthetic  bonds.     Such  bonds  are  not 
habits  of  thinking  but  habits  of  not  thinking.38 

Looking  back,34  Fuller  has  explained  that  behind  the  design  of 
Dymaxion  I  lay  an  effort  to  maximize  the  performance  of  the  house 
per  pound  of  material  in  its  structure.  This  objective  led  to  a  search 
for  the  means  of  enclosing  the  maximum  volume  with  the  minimum 
surface,  for  ways  to  use  light  materials,  and  for  a  structure  which 
would  utilize  metals  in  tension  rather  than  compression  in  order  to 
take  greatest  advantage  of  their  strength  properties.  Some  have  held 
that  Fuller  was  not  as  rational  as  he  supposed.  Lewis  Mumford 
pointed  out,  for  instance,  that  "though  Mr.  Fuller  .  .  .  believes  that 
he  has  swept  aside  all  traditional  tags  in  dealing  with  the  house,  and 
has  faced  its  design  with  inexorable  rigor,  he  has  kept,  with  charming 
unconsciousness,  the  most  traditional  and  sentimental  tag  of  all, 
namely,  the  free-standing  individual  house.  If  we  are  thorough 
enough  in  our  thinking  to  throw  that  prejudice  aside,  too,  we  may,  I 
suspect,  still  find  a  place  for  the  architect  in  modern  civilization."  35 
Another  aspect  of  Fuller's  thinking  that  has  been  questioned  is  his 
pronouncement  of  performance  per  pound  as  a  figure  of  merit  for 
house  design.  Why,  it  has  been  asked,  per  pound  of  house?  What 
if  it  should  cost  more  to  produce  and  use  the  light  metals  Fuller  calls 
for  than  to  fabricate  and  transport  somewhat  heavier  materials?  How 
important  is  transportation  cost  in  the  final  cost,  and  to  what  extent 
does  transportation  cost  depend  upon  bulk  rather  than  weight?  Per 
haps  the  reason  that  the  designers  of  houses  have  not  thought  in 
terms  of  performance  per  pound  is  that  they  are  not  so  deeply  con 
cerned  with  gravity  as  are  aircraft  and  ship  designers.  But  this  is 
not  the  place  to  examine  the  validity  of  details  of  Fuller's  argument. 
The  important  thing  is  that  he  should  have  thought  in  terms  of  some 
figure  of  merit  and  in  terms  of  what  technology  had  provided  and 
could  provide  in  materials  and  structural  methods. 

At  the  time  his  house  was  introduced,  Fuller  writes,36  he  extrapo 
lated  curves  of  industrial  progress,  of  housing  demand  and  supply,  of 
invention  gestation,  of  the  range  and  frequency  of  per  capita  travel, 
and  concluded  that  the  house,  with  all  the  improvements  in  technol 
ogy  that  would  take  place  in  the  meantime,  could  not  be  industrially 

33  Buckminster  Fuller,  "Dymaxion  Houses:  an  Attitude,"  Architectural  Record, 
75  (January  1934),  10. 

34  R.  Buckminster  Fuller,  Designing  a  New  Industry:  A  Composite  of  a  Series 
of  Talks  (Wichita,  Kan.:  Fuller  Research  Institute,  1946). 

35  Lewis  Mumford,  City  Development:  Studies  in  Renewal  and  Disintegration 
(New  York:  Harcourt,  Brace  &  Co.,  1945),  p.  73. 

36  Fuller,  Designing  a  New  Industry,  p.  24. 

27 


produced  for  some  21  or  22  years,  until  1948-1949.  For  a  while,  in 
the  last  few  years,  it  looked  as  though  Fuller's  prognostication  might 
have  been  startlingly  accurate.  A  new  version  of  the  Dymaxion  house 
was  prominent  in  the  news.  Basically  the  same  as  the  1927  design, 
it  had  been  made  round  instead  of  hexagonal  and  had  been  lowered 
on  its  mast  and  fitted  with  a  ventilator  on  top;  recent  developments 
in  light  metals,  in  synthetics,  and  in  aircraft  production  techniques 
were  to  be  applied  to  its  manufacture;  it  was  even  accorded  a  "better 
than  even  chance  of  upsetting  building  industry."  37  But  this  later 
Fuller  house  never  got  into  production,  and  changes  introduced  after 
Fuller  left  the  company  did  not  help  the  situation. 

It  is  clear  that  in  1927,  even  if  the  technology  had  been  capable  of 
it,  no  one  was  in  a  hurry  to  produce  anything  so  revolutionary.  The 
building  industry  had  just  finished  one  of  the  biggest  years  in  its 
history  and  had  already  passed  the  turning  point  of  its  boom.  There 
was  little  talk  of  a  housing  shortage;  in  fact  it  seemed  to  industry  that 
plenty  of  houses,  if  not  too  many,  were  being  produced,  even  if  they 
were  not  going  to  those  who  needed  them  most.  Although  the  ideas 
of  Fuller  and  other  members  of  this  group  of  radical  thinkers  were  not 
realized  in  production,  they  still  served  two  ends:  they  caused  the 
architects  and  engineers  to  think  more  deeply  about  house  design, 
and,  perhaps  not  so  happily,  they  caused  considerable  public  excite 
ment.  The  outburst  of  inventions  and  publicity  really  arrived,  how 
ever,  with  the  thirties,  when  the  nation,  struggling  through  a  depres 
sion,  turned  anxious  eyes  towards  the  technical  world  in  the  hope 
that  some  mass-production  miracle  might  occur. 


IV.   1930-1940:  Prefcibrication  Attains  the  Status  of  a  Move 
ment 


A.  The  Background  Influences 

It  was  in  the  early  thirties  that  prefabrication  became  a  widely 
recognized  movement,  and  interest  in  one  aspect  or  another  of  the 

37  "Fuller's  House,"  Fortune,  XXXIII  (April  1946),  167.    But  see  also: 
"What  became  of  the  Fuller  house,"  Fortune,  XXXVII  (May  1948),  168. 

28 


idea  spread  to  a  much  wider  group  than  the  handful  of  inventors  and 
small  companies  which  had  previously  been  concerned.  The  spread 
of  this  idea  may  be  attributed  to  a  confluence  of  factors,  economic, 
social,  and  technical. 


1.  Economic  Factors 

There  was,  first  of  all,  the  overwhelming  effect  of  the  depression, 
the  impact  of  which  stimulated  the  search  for  new  kinds  of  employ 
ment  and  investment  opportunity.  Though  builders  and  mortgage 
institutions  were  not  yet  concerned  about  a  housing  shortage,  it  was 
clear  to  many  who  were  casting  about  for  new  markets  that  a  radically 
low-cost  house  would  offer  just  such  an  opportunity.  It  was  generally 
recognized  that  the  purchase  of  a  new  house  was  beyond  the  means 
of  at  least  half  of  the  families  in  America.38  Here  was  a  market  if  only 
one  could  provide  the  product.  But  not  only  was  there  a  search  for 
new  investment  opportunities;  it  was  also  necessary  to  find  an  out 
let  for  the  potential  output  of  existing  investments  in  plant  and  equip 
ment.  The  steel  industry,  for  instance,  operating  at  one-quarter  of 
capacity,39  looked  desperately  for  a  new  market  to  absorb  what  it 
was  capable  of  producing.  Similarly,  some  of  the  large  building  ma 
terials  producers  sought  to  get  housebuilding,  which  had  slumped  to 
10%  of  its  1925  peak,40  out  of  the  doldrums.  The  consequence  was  a 
widespread  development  of  themes  similar  to  that  of  an  article  in  Col 
liers  entitled,  <cWe  Can  Build  Our  Way  Out/'41  which  called  for  a 
new  house  manufacturing  industry  to  end  the  depression. 

38  In  the  mid-thirties,  when  a  mass  of  statistical  investigation  began  to  pro 
vide  us  with  some  disturbing  facts  about  our  economy,  it  turned  out  that,  if 
one  took  the  crude  rule  of  thumb  that  a  home  buyer's  income  should  equal  half 
the  cost  of  his  house,  some  79%  of  American  families  could  not  afford  a  "low- 
cost"  house  priced  with  lot  at  $4,000  (Family  Expenditures  in  the  United  States, 
National  Resources  Planning  Board  [Washington,  1941],  Table  1,  p.  1). 

39  1936  Supplement,  Survey  of  Current  Business,  U.  S.  Department  of  Com 
merce,  p.  118.     In  1932  ingot  production  was  at  20%  of  capacity;  sheet  steel 
production  at  25%  of  capacity. 

40  Total  non-farm  dwelling  units  started  in  1925:   937,000;  in   1933:   93,000 
(Housing  Statistics  Handbook,  Housing  and  Home  Finance  Agency  [Washington, 
1948],  p.  2). 

"Collier's,  91  (June  10,  1933),  12 ff. 


29 


2.  Social  Factors 

Added  to  this  general  economic  outlook  was  a  social  atmosphere 
in  which  there  were,  on  the  one  hand,  those  whose  faith  in  our  eco 
nomic  system  had  been  considerably  shaken  and  who  argued  that  at 
least  in  housing  the  government  must  take  an  active  role  in  provid 
ing  for  the  lower-income  groups,  and,  on  the  other,  those  who  were 
convinced  of  the  basic  soundness  of  a  private  enterprise  economy. 
The  industrialization  of  housing  was  a  challenge  to  those  who  be 
lieved  in  the  private  industrial  system  and  thought  it  could  be  made 
to  work  in  all  areas  for  the  benefit  of  all  the  people.  There  were 
other  relevant  social  trends:  the  increasing  concern  about  economic 
insecurity,  the  movement  of  employment  opportunities,  and  the  mo 
bility  of  the  population;  the  increasing  scope  of  government  activities; 
the  growth  of  a  housing  movement.  These  will  be  discussed  more 
fully  later. 


3.  Technical  Factors 

There  were  also  technical  developments  during  this  period  which 
deserve  brief  mention  here:  the  progress  in  plywood  manufacture 
brought  about  by  improvements  in  glues  and  veneer  cutting;  the 
better  utilization  of  wood  seconds  and  wood  waste  to  make  plastics, 
wallboards,  and  hardboards;  the  expanded  production  of  other  sheet 
materials  made  from  gypsum,  asbestos,  cane  fiber,  newspaper,  etc.; 
the  development  of  sheet  steel  and  the  continuous  strip  and  cold- 
rolled  processes;  the  improvement  in  alloys,  especially  of  the  light 
metals;  and  the  treatment  of  cementitious  materials  by  vibrating, 
aerating,  and  use  of  lightweight  aggregates.  Again,  these  will  be  dis 
cussed  later. 

This  complex  of  economic,  social,  and  technical  factors  will  be 
analyzed  here  by  summarizing  the  activities  of  those  groups  which 
concerned  themselves  with  broad  applications:  the  non-commercial 
research  organizations,  the  government,  and  the  business  and  financial 
world. 


30 


B.  Non-Commercial  Research  and  Development 


One  aspect  that  distinguished  American  research  and  development 
in  prefabrication  from  those  in  other  countries  was  their  continuity.42 
In  America,  as  elsewhere,  commercial  sponsors  were  active,  in  gen 
eral,  only  if  they  saw  profit  possibilities.  But  here,  unlike  most  other 
countries,  there  was  a  core  of  constant  activity  in  research  which  was 
carried  on  with  the  principal  object  of  providing  better  and  more 
economic  shelter.  True,  the  scale  on  which  development  and  ex 
perimentation  were  carried  out  varied  with  business  conditions,  but 
at  least  a  small  amount  of  effort  was  consistently  expended  regardless 
of  the  immediate  economic  problems  at  hand. 


1.  Pierce  Foundation 

In  the  twenties  there  were  Bemis  and  Atterbury,  and  now,  in  the 
thirties,  other  organizations  entered  the  field.  The  Housing  Research 
Division  of  the  Pierce  Foundation,43  in  Raritan,  N.  J.,  was  founded  in 
1931  and  under  the  direction  of  Robert  L.  Davison  began  a  search  for 
materials  and  structures  that  would  yield  a  house  of  lowest  possible 
cost  consistent  with  adequate  physical  standards.  Among  the  mate 
rials  which  this  group  tried  were  concrete,  plywood,  composition 
board,  cellular  glass,  stabilized  earth,  and  a  hydro-calcium  silicate 
composition  known  as  "Microporite."  Behind  much  of  its  experimenta 
tion  lay  the  same  aim  that  motivated  Bemis:  to  find  a  single  material 
which  would  serve  both  as  structure  and  as  enclosure.  A  number  of 
test  houses  were  erected.  The  first,  in  1932,  had  an  open-spaced 
(12%')  steel  frame  and  floor-carrying  walls  of  welded  lattice  trusses 
encased  in  a  cementitious  material,  a  system  intended  primarily  for 
multistory  apartment  construction.  A  second  experimental  house 
(1935)  also  used  an  open-spaced  steel  frame  with  precast  reinforced 
Microporite  slabs  for  walls,  floors,  roof,  and  partitions.  Both  these 
structures  used  panels  horizontally,  a  type  of  design  which  the  Founda 
tion  tended  to  favor  for  its  flexibility  in  planning  and  fenestration,  de- 

42  Harrison,  op.  cit.,  p.  124. 

43  The  John  B.  Pierce  Foundation  of  New  York  City  was  chartered  in  1924  to 
carry   on   educational,   technical,   and   scientific   work   in   the   general   fields    of 
heating,  ventilating,  and  sanitation.     It  was  endowed  in  the  will  of  John  B. 
Pierce,  New  England  industrialist  and  financier. 

31 


spite  the  much  more  common  preference  for  vertical  elements.  Later 
a  community  of  20  plywood  houses  in  Highbridge,  N.  J.,  was  built  to 
permit  a  continuous  study  of  family  needs  and  maintenance  prob 
lems. 

The  Foundation  has  also  done  considerable  work  on  plumbing  and 
heating  equipment  and  was  largely  responsible  for  the  integrated 
mechanical  core  as  it  first  reached  the  market  in  1935  in  the  American 
Motohome.  Its  work  was  reflected  commercially  in  at  least  two 
other  ways.  The  studies  of  floor  plans  and  family  living  habits  were 
at  least  partially  responsible  for  the  24'  X  28'  single-story  house 
which  has  to  a  large  extent  become  "standard"  in  the  low-cost  field. 
A  second  instance  was  the  Cemesto  House,  released  for  commercial 
development  with  considerable  success  in  war  housing.44  This  dwel 
ling  had  an  open-spaced  wood  frame  clothed  with  horizontally  laid 
slabs  of  Cemesto,  a  sandwich  material  composed  of  a  cane  fiber  insu 
lating  core  faced  on  both  sides  with  cement  asbestos  sheets.  At  the 
present  time  the  Foundation  is  continuing  its  work  on  a  number  of 
phases  of  house  construction,  concerned  particularly  with  systems  of 
prefabrication  employing  stressed  skin  plywood  panels  in  connection 
with  structural  frames  of  either  light-gauge  steel  or  wood. 


2.  Universities 

Purdue  University's  Housing  Research  Project,  instituted  in  1935, 
was  another  non-commercial  agency  that  carried  on  work  in  the  field, 
much  of  which  was  done  in  cooperation  with  industry.  One  of  its 
early  efforts  was  the  building  and  testing  of  five  commercial  types  of 
low-cost  house,  two  of  which  were  prefabricated.  Engineering  and 
cost  studies  were  made  and  published.  Considerable  work  has  also 
been  done  in  the  fields  of  heating  and  ventilation. 

Other  universities  were,  of  course,  also  conducting  research  in  re 
lated  areas,  yet  this  work  was  generally  not  focused  specifically  on  the 
problem  of  building  the  house  shell,  but  was  more  often  concerned 
with  various  types  of  economic  studies,  with  family  needs,  or  with 
mechanical  equipment.  This  was  in  part  a  reflection  of  the  peculiar 
organization  of  the  housebuilding  industry  which  left  it,  by  compari 
son  with  other  industries  in,  for  instance,  the  chemical  and  electrical 

44  For  instance,  the  community  built  for  the  employees  of  the  Glenn  L.  Martin 
Company  near  Baltimore,  Md. 

32 


fields,  quite  unable  to  pose  the  problems,  encourage  the  research,  and 
utilize  the  results. 


C.  Government  Activity:  Techniques  and  Standards 


1.  U.  S.  Forest  Products  Laboratory 

Several  government  agencies  played  a  prominent  role  in  the  de 
velopment  of  prefabrication  during  the  thirties.  One  of  these  was  the 
U.  S.  Forest  Products  Laboratory,45  whose  purpose  it  was  to  study  the 
utilization  of  our  forest  resources  and  which  had  for  some  time  been 
working  on  various  types  of  glue  and  plywoods.  Later  it  began  to 
work  on  house  construction,  and  in  1935  its  first  stressed  skin  plywood 
house  was  built,  embracing  a  structural  design  that  was  to  have  a 
very  great  influence  on  the  development  of  the  industry.  The  stressed 
skin  principle  was  not  new,  except  to  housebuilding;  the  idea  was 
simply  to  build  the  wall  panel  as  a  box  girder  and  thus  use  the  sur 
faces  of  the  panel  in  such  a  way  that  they,  as  well  as  the  framing 
members,  would  carry  a  major  part  of  the  load.  Though  not  new, 
the  principle  waited  for  its  housing  application  upon  the  creation  of 
the  proper  plywoods  and  glues.  Stressed  skin  construction  offered 
good  possibilities  for  saving  material,  mechanizing  wood  fabrication, 
and  lightening  the  structure,  and  it  was  therefore  eagerly  adopted  by 
a  number  of  prefabricators  and  was  extensively  exploited  in  war  hous 
ing.  The  contributions  of  the  U.  S.  Forest  Products  Laboratory  to 
prefabrication  had  really  just  begun,  however,  for  in  the  ensuing 
years  the  research  carried  out  there  dealt  with  many  of  the  technical 
problems  besetting  manufacturers,  for  example,  dust  patterns,  inter- 
wall  condensation,  and  the  bowing  of  panels  due  to  changes  in  mois 
ture  content;  and  the  work  of  the  Laboratory  with  new  materials  and 
production  techniques  had  great  import  for  most  of  the  firms  in  the 
industry.  It  is  probably  pertinent  to  remark  that  this  publicly  spon 
sored  research  organization  served  a  unique  role  in  an  industry  char 
acterized  by  small  companies  which  were  generally  incapable  of 
carrying  on  any  extensive  research  of  their  own. 

45  Madison,  Wis.  Established  in  1910,  and  operated  by  the  U.  S.  Forest 
Service,  Department  of  Agriculture. 


2.  National  Bureau  of  Standards 

Another  government  agency  which  rendered  technical  assistance 
to  prefabrication  was  the  National  Bureau  of  Standards,  which  in 
1937  began  a  program  of  research  in  building  materials  and  struc 
tures  for  use  in  low-cost  housing.  Testing  procedures  for  such  ele 
ments  of  the  house  as  walls,  partitions,  floors,  and  roof  were  developed, 
and  a  large  number  of  reports  on  the  physical  properties  of  various 
materials  and  systems  of  construction,  some  of  them  prefabricated  to 
a  large  degree,  have  since  been  issued.46  Work  was  also  done  on 
plumbing  and  heating  equipment,  on  Simplified  Practice  Recom 
mendations,47  Commercial  Standards,48  and  building  codes.  Ulti 
mately  this  program  of  performance  tests  and  related  building  studies 
may  have  a  large  effect  on  the  writing  of  codes  and  specifications 
and  on  the  whole  development  of  better  and  cheaper  methods  of 
construction. 


3.  Federal  Housing  Administration 

It  is  the  Federal  Housing  Administration,  however,  which  has  prob 
ably  been  the  most  important  single  influence  in  setting  standards 
for  the  construction  of  low-cost  houses.  Through  its  guides  for  rating 
mortgage  risk  the  FHA  established  many  criteria  for  house  construc 
tion.  Prefabricators  who  were  trying  to  tap  medium-  and  low-cost 
markets  with  a  new  product  had  to  rely  to  a  considerable  extent  on 
FHA  mortgages  for  home  financing.  When  a  prefabricator's  house 
was  approved  on  a  technical  basis,  the  Washington  office  of  the  FHA 
issued  an  Engineering  Bulletin  proclaiming  that  fact  and  giving  perti 
nent  data.  One  result  of  this  was  to  create  a  basis  for  evaluating  the 

46  Building  Materials  and  Structures  Reports,  U.  S.  Department  of  Commerce, 
National  Bureau  of  Standards  (Washington,  1939+ ). 

47  Aimed  at  eliminating  waste  through  the  establishment  of  standards  of  prac 
tice  for  stock  sizes  and  varieties  of  specific  commodities  that  are  currently  in 
general   production   and   demand.      Adopted   voluntarily   by    industry   with   the 
assistance  of  the  National  Bureau  of  Standards. 

48  Aimed  at  establishing   standard  methods   of  test,   rating,   certification,   and 
labeling  of  commodities  and  at  providing  uniform   bases  for  fair  competition. 
Adopted  voluntarily  by  industry  with  the  assistance  of  the  National  Bureau  of 
Standards.     Commercial  Standard  CS 125-45  for  Prefabricated  Homes,  accepted 
in    1945,   was    the   first   applying   to    the   prefabrication   industry.      A   revision, 
CS125-47,  was  brought  out  in  1947. 


prefabricating  systems  commercially  available.  Yet,  while  the  FHA 
has  had  a  distinctly  salutary  effect  in  revising  mortgage  financing,  in 
inducing  banks  to  lend  on  prefabricated  houses,  and  in  establishing 
standards,  the  influence  of  its  approval  has  grown  so  great  that  a  new 
house  manufacturer  is  now  apt  to  be  severely  penalized  without  it. 
The  importance  of  this  institution  increased  steadily  throughout  the 
thirties,  but  it  was  only  in  the  postwar  period  that  it  reached  its  pres 
ent  tremendous  significance.  It  is  perhaps  not  too  much  to  say  that 
FHA  approval  is  now  a  matter  of  life  or  death  to  the  prefabricator 
about  to  enter  production  with  a  new  system,  and  in  view  of  the  power 
wielded  by  the  FHA,  its  policy  with  respect  to  new  developments  in 
building  has  become  a  matter  of  considerable  importance. 


D.  Government  Activity:  Prefabricated  Construction 

When  we  turn  to  a  consideration  of  the  various  government  agencies 
which  entered  into  housebuilding  directly,  we  find  vast  differences  in 
approach,  deriving  chiefly  from  equally  large  differences  in  purpose. 
At  one  extreme  there  was  the  public  housing  program,  first  under  the 
Public  Works  Administration  and  then  under  the  United  States  Hous 
ing  Authority,  which  was  conceived  in  terms  of  highly  permanent 
fireproof  multifamily  buildings  having  low  maintenance,  high  physical 
standards,  and  long-term  (60-year)  amortization  to  make  rents  as 
low  as  possible.  The  program  was  aimed  at  rehousing  slum  dwellers 
and  usually  involved  building  in  dense  urban  areas.  For  these  and 
other  reasons  the  public  housing  authorities  did  not  regard  prefabri- 
cation  very  seriously  and  did  not  use  it  at  all  until  the  advent  of  the 
war  housing  program. 


1.  Farm  Security  Administration 

In  contrast  to  this  public  housing  program,  the  Farm  Security  Ad 
ministration  49  was  charged  with  promoting  self-sufficiency,  decreas 
ing  tenancy,  and  resettling  migrants  on  the  land.  The  FSA's  ap 
proach  was  from  the  beginning  characterized  by  a  willingness  to  ex- 

49  Formed  in  1937  to  carry  on  the  work  of  the  Resettlement  Administration 
and  several  other  farm  agencies. 

35 


periment,  and  its  technical  staff,  which  was  decentralized  into  12  re 
gional  offices  and  by  comparison  with  the  public  housing  program  was 
relatively  free  from  Washington  control,  emerged  with  many  fresh 
approaches  to  construction.  In  1938  the  FSA  built  100  farmsteads  for 
sharecropper  families  in  Missouri  and  achieved  very  low  costs  by 
prefabricating  wall  and  roof  sections  and  making  use  of  a  large  pro 
portion  of  unskilled  labor.  The  price  was  $1,105  for  a  24'  X  36'  five- 
room  house,  and  $2,000  for  a  farmstead  including  house,  barn,  stor 
age  shed,  privy,  fencing,  roads,  and  a  well.50  The  following  year  60 
farmstead  units  of  steel  were  ordered  from  the  Tennessee  Coal,  Iron 
&  Railroad  Co.,  a  United  States  Steel  Corporation  subsidiary,  and  were 
erected  in  Georgia,  Alabama,  and  South  Carolina.  The  houses,  a 
little  smaller  than  the  wooden  ones  built  in  Missouri,  cost  503? 
more.51  In  the  west  the  FSA  built  whole  communities  for  migratory 
farm  workers  and  carried  on  a  number  of  experiments  with  plywood 
and  other  unconventional  construction  in  an  attempt  to  provide  mi 
grants  with  something  more  substantial  and  more  economical  than  a 
tent.  Some  6,000  steel  "minimum"  units,  12'  X  14',  were  built  for  this 
purpose.  Though  not  related  specifically  to  prefabrication,  the  plan 
ning  and  building  of  these  integrated  farm  communities  were  among 
the  agency's  most  significant  contributions  in  the  field  of  housing. 
By  the  end  of  1940  the  FSA  had  built  more  than  26,000  individual 
houses,52  and  at  that  time  The  Architectural  Forum  could  write,  "To 
day  in  face  of  a  national  emergency,  Farm  Security  stands  out  as  the 
agency  most  experienced  in  the  work  of  building  houses  quickly  and 
cheaply." 53  Its  work  continued  into  the  war  period  and  included  in 
a  dormitory  project  near  Vallejo,  Calif.,  one  of  the  first  uses  of  stressed 
skin  plywood  construction  in  two-story  buildings. 


2.  The  Fort  Wayne  Experiment 

Still  another  approach  was  the  widely  publicized  Fort  Wayne  Plan 
developed  jointly  in  1938  by  the  FHA,  the  Fort  Wayne  Housing  Au 
thority,  and  the  PWA.  The  50  single-family  units  comprising  this 

*°The  Architectural  Forum,  69  (November  1938),  393-4. 

51  The  Architectural  Forum,  70  (January  1939),  68;  Architectural  Record,  85 
(January  1939),  38-9. 

52  Including  those  built  by  the  agencies  the  FSA  had  taken  over  ( The  Archi 
tectural  Forum,  74  [January  1941],  13). 

™The  Architectural  Forum,  74  (January  1941),  3. 

36 


project  were  built  of  stressed  skin  panels  and  rented  for  $2.50  a  week. 
WPA  labor  was  used  in  a  factory  rented  and  equipped  by  the  Fort 
Wayne  Housing  Authority,  and  houses  were  placed  in  blighted  areas 
on  vacant  lots  which  had  been  bought  for  $1.00  each,  the  seller  be 
ing  given  an  option  to  repurchase.  This  plan  differed  significantly 
from  the  public  housing  formula,  and  it  inspired  considerable  con 
troversy.54  Its  480  sq.  ft.  houses  were  below  USHA  standards;  it  re 
quired  demountable  units  in  case  the  land  was  reclaimed  by  the 
former  owner;  it  called  for  lighter  construction  and  shorter  amortiza 
tion  periods;  it  used  WPA  labor;  and  it  involved  private,  insured 
financing.  Perhaps  the  fact  that  this  plan  was  not  adopted  elsewhere 
is  evidence  that  it  was  not  suited  to  the  conditions  and  the  times.  It 
did,  however,  bring  attention  to  another  example  of  prefabricated 
construction. 


3.  Tennessee  Valley  Authority 

Probably  the  most  important  government  effort  in  prefabricated 
building  during  this  period,  at  least  from  a  developmental  standpoint, 
was  the  work  of  the  Tennessee  Valley  Authority  with  demountable 
sectional  houses.  Actually  this  work  extended  well  into  the  war  years, 
but  it  had  its  origin  in  an  earlier  period  and  is  therefore  discussed 
here.  The  TVA  required  temporary  housing  for  the  construction 
workers  on  its  many  hydroelectric  projects  and  had  for  some  time 
speculated  about  making  good  portable  houses  as  an  alternative  to 
building  mere  shacks. 

In  1934  Louis  Grandgent,  then  chief  of  TVA's  architectural  section, 
proposed  a  scheme  for  building  a  house  which  could  be  separated 
into  four  or  five  sections  each  of  such  dimensions  that  it  could  travel 
safely  by  truck  and  trailer  over  public  highways.  After  some  ex 
perience  with  transporting  conventional  houses  by  barge,  the  sectional 
house  idea  was  developed  by  the  TVA  staff  under  the  supervision  of 
Carroll  A.  Towne.  In  1940  the  first  TVA  sectional  houses  were  built 
for  transportation  by  truck  to  the  site.55  Sections  measured  7%'  X  22' 

54  See,  for  instance,  Charles  Abrams,  "Fort  Wayne  Housing  Plan  Analyzed," 
American  City,  LIV  (April  1939),  106;  National  Association  of  Housing  Officials 
News  (February  28,  1939),  9-11;  (March  28,  1939),  21. 

55  In  1939  General  Housing  Corporation,  Seattle,  Wash.,  had  begun  manufac 
ture  of  a  sectional  but  otherwise  conventional  wood  frame  house.    The  four-room 
dwelling  was  made  in  two  12'  wide  sections,  completely  finished  and  equipped 

37 


X  9%'»  were  of  wood  frame  construction,  and  weighed  three  tons. 
They  left  the  factory  with  all  electric,  heating,  and  plumbing  equip 
ment  installed,  and  arrived  at  the  site  completely  finished  even  down 
to  light  bulbs  and  screens.  Houses  were  finished  at  the  site  in  as 
little  as  four  hours  by  bolting  together  two  or  more  sections.  The 
next  year  the  TVA's  design  was  adopted  by  the  Federal  Works  Agency 
for  war  housing,  but  in  order  to  meet  nationally  standardized  require 
ments,  a  pitched  roof,  hinged  to  let  down  during  transit,  was  added. 
In  1942  the  TVA  began  experimenting  with  designs  that  frankly 
recognized  the  house  section  as  a  trailer  and  used  certain  aspects  of 
trailer  construction.  Weight  was  reduced  by  the  adoption  of  stressed 
skin  principles,  and  transportation  costs  were  cut  from  30^  per  sec 
tion  per  mile  to  23^.  These  houses  were  trucked  as  far  as  600  miles. 
Still  later,  when  the  Army  erected  several  thousand  of  these  houses 
at  the  atomic  bomb  project  at  Oak  Ridge,  Tenn.,  a  boom  crane  was 
used  to  put  sections  in  place  instead  of  the  jacks  and  rails  that  had 
previously  been  used.  This  kind  of  prefabrication,  which  reduced 
site  labor  to  as  little  as  5-10%  of  total  direct  labor,  was  later  to  have 
considerable  influence  in  several  postwar  designs,  notably  the  Prenco 
and  Reliance  houses  and  the  British  AIROH  house. 


E.  Commercial  Development  by  Private  Enterprise 


While  a  number  of  non-profit  and  government  institutions  made 
significant  contributions  to  the  development  of  prefabrication,  its 
widespread  adoption  on  a  commercial  basis  awaited  the  efforts  of 
private  enterprise,  and  it  remained  for  some  entrepreneur  to  organize 
a  successful  pattern  of  operations.  In  the  early  thirties  one  element 
of  the  business  world,  big  business,  saw  the  challenge  of  prefabrica 
tion  and  talked  as  though  it  were  prepared  to  turn  the  gleam  in  the 
inventor's  eye  into  a  profitable  operation.  For  reasons  outlined  pre 
viously,  at  least  a  dozen  of  America's  largest  corporations  entertained 
the  idea  for  a  while,  and  a  few  stuck  with  it  continuously.  Among 
the  big  names  were  United  States  Steel  Corporation,  Great  Lakes 
Steel  Corporation,  American  Car  and  Foundry  Co.,  Pullman  Standard 
Car  Mfg.  Co.,  The  Celotex  Corporation,  Johns-Manville  Corporation, 
U.  S.  Gypsum  Co.,  American  Radiator  &  Standard  Sanitary  Corp.,  and 

in  the  factory  and  trucked  to  the  site  (in  the  Seattle  area)  where  it  was  bolted 
together.  Average  price,  erected  and  with  lot,  $3,900;  f.o.b.,  $2,980  (The 
Architectural  Forum,  70  [April  1939],  286). 

38 


General  Electric  Company.  Several  of  these  companies  went  no 
further  than  to  supply  certain  components  to  prefabricators  in  accord 
ance  with  specifications.  Some  of  the  materials  producers  went  to 
the  extent  of  developing  a  house  system,  not  infrequently  a  structure 
which  reflected  the  attempt  to  find  every  possible  use  for  that  com 
pany's  product.  Only  a  few  companies  maintained  a  prefabrication 
research  establishment  that  was  more  than  a  token  effort,  and  these 
few  did  it  on  a  budget  that  was  meager  compared  to  the  research  ex 
penditures  of  equally  large  companies  in  other  industries.  However, 
most  of  these  companies  and  a  number  of  others  retained  advisors  to 
keep  in  touch  with  current  developments. 


1.  General  Houses,  Inc. 

Related  to  the  interest  of  big  business  in  prefabrication  were  the 
proposals  for  at  least  two  rather  ambitious  corporate  structures. 
The  first  of  these  was  General  Houses,  Inc.,  organized  in  1932. 
Under  the  leadership  of  Howard  T.  Fisher,  General  Houses  was 
to  design,  coordinate,  and  assemble  standard  parts  to  be  produced 
for  it  by  a  number  of  prominent  specialists.  It  took  its  pattern 
from  the  automobile  industry,  in  which  the  nominal  manufacturer 
usually  acts  more  as  an  assembler  than  as  an  actual  producer  but 
does  assume  responsibility  for  coordinating  the  many  elements  in 
volved  and  for  providing  a  complete  service  to  the  customer.  With 
unused  capacity  available  in  thousands  of  plants  throughout  the 
country,  General  Houses  would  need  no  plant  and  would  have 
none;  instead,  parts  were  to  flow  from  the  specialized  manufacturers 
via  warehouses  to  the  site  where  they  would  be  assembled.  The 
house  was  not  to  be  standardized;  it  was  to  be  custom  built  from 
standard  elements.  In  many  respects  this  pattern  was  followed, 
with  the  cooperation  of  several  large  corporations.56  Research  and 

56  Among  others,  Bethlehem  Steel  Co.,  Pullman  Standard  Car  Mfg.  Co.,  Curtis 
Companies  Incorporated,  American  Radiator  &  Standard  Sanitary  Corp.,  Con 
tainer  Corporation  of  America,  and  Weyerhaeuser  Timber  Co.  General  Houses 
had  an  extremely  simple  corporate  structure.  Only  one  or  two  of  the  cooperat 
ing  companies  ever  held  any  stock,  and  their  stockholdings  were  nominal.  After 
Pullman  withdrew  to  concentrate  on  the  expanding  car  business,  Bethlehem  Steel 
took  over  and  for  several  years  fabricated  all  the  steel  parts  used  by  the  com 
pany.  Most  of  the  millwork  and  other  woodwork  was  made  by  Curtis  right 
through  to  the  war  years,  when  Curtis  fabricated  complete  panels  for  walls, 
floors,  ceilings,  and  partitions  for  some  of  General  Houses'  war  housing  projects. 

39 


development  were  financed  by  General  Houses  itself  and  standard 
parts  made  to  General  Houses'  specifications  were  purchased  from 
suppliers  as  in  the  automobile  industry.  Beginning  with  a  house 
of  load-bearing  steel  panels  (see  Figure  9),  General  Houses  changed 
in  1936  to  a  steel  frame  system  with  sandwich  panels  of  cement 
asbestos  sheet  (exterior),  insulation,  and  plywood  (interior),  largely 
in  an  effort  to  achieve  lower  cost.  Architecturally  the  design  was 
quite  modern  with  a  minimum  of  ornament,  a  flat  roof,  smooth 
exteriors,  vertical  battens,  and  a  good  deal  of  glass.57  Up  until 
shortly  before  the  war  General  Houses  built  several  hundred  of 
these  houses,  an  output  far  below  its  proposed  mass-production 
levels.  It  had  encountered  a  few  technical  difficulties  such  as 
interwall  condensation,  none  of  them  serious,  but  had  met  with 
its  largest  problems  in  the  realm  of  financing  and  marketing.  The 
dealers  came  largely  from  outside  the  building  industry  because  of 
opposition  to  prefabrication  within  the  industry.  In  some  respects, 
they  could  do  a  better  job  of  retail  merchandising,  but  they  were 
severely  handicapped  by  lack  of  practical  building  experience.  An 
other  major  source  of  trouble  was  in  obtaining  suitable  mortgage 
appraisals,  a  problem  which  derived  largely  from  the  unconven 
tional  nature  of  the  house.  General  Houses  revised  its  approach 
towards  the  end  of  the  decade,  partly  for  these  reasons  and  partly 
because  of  increasing  shortages  in  steel.  Fewer  designs  were  of 
fered,  wood  was  employed  as  a  basic  material,  the  roof  was  peaked, 
and  the  general  appearance  was  made  to  conform  with  convention. 
About  this  time  the  defense  housing  program  started,  curtailing 
private  building  to  a  large  extent,  and  General  Houses  changed 
its  plans  further,  becoming  one  of  the  first  prefabricators  to  par 
ticipate  in  the  war  housing  effort  and  influencing  in  part  the  use  of 
prefabrication  in  war  projects. 


2.  Houses,  Inc. 

The  second  of  these  grand  ventures  was  Houses,  Inc.,  started 
by  Foster  Gunnison  in  1934  at  the  instigation  of  Owen  D.  Young, 
then  Chairman  of  the  Board  of  General  Electric  Company.  Houses, 
Inc.,  would  build  no  houses,  but  it  would  cooperate  with  other  com 
panies  in  the  development  of  houses  of  several  types.  To  this  end 

57  Price  in  1934,  erected  but  less  freight  and  cost  of  lot:  four-room  house, 
$4,500;  six-room,  two-story  house  with  garage,  $8,550. 

40 


it  proposed  to  engage  in  research  and  provide  assistance  in  the 
management  and  financing  of  housing  enterprises.  American  Ra 
diator  &  Standard  Sanitary  Corp.  and  General  Electric  Company  were 
the  companies  which  were  to  cooperate  in  the  development  work. 
Houses,  Inc.,  was  to  own  stock  in  other  companies  which  would 
assemble  and  erect  the  dwellings.  In  1935  there  were  two  such 
affiliates,  National  Houses,  Inc.,  which  had  a  steel-frame  steel-panel 
system,  and  American  Houses,  Inc.,  which  was  producing  the 
Motohome. 

The  promotion  of  the  Motohome  was  the  biggest  activity  of 
Houses,  Inc.,  that  year.  Engraved  invitations  to  the  first  exhibition 
announced  the  "American  Motohome"  as  "the  prefabricated  house 
that  comes  complete  with  food  in  the  kitchen."  In  Wanamaker's 
New  York  store  on  April  1,  1935,  President  Roosevelt's  mother  un 
tied  the  ribbon  that  bound  the  Cellophane-wrapped  house.58  The 
public  found  a  house  of  steel  frame  and  asbestos  cement  panels, 
with  a  flat  roof,  corner  windows,  and  an  exterior  which  frankly  ex 
pressed  the  panelized  construction.  Inside  was  a  mechanical  core 
including  plumbing,  heating,  and  electrical  equipment,  the  product 
of  work  by  the  Pierce  Foundation  and  General  Electric  Company. 
The  promotional  campaign  included  not  only  store  exhibits  and 
demonstration  houses  such  as  those  built  in  Westchester  County 
that  summer,  but  also  extensive  publicity  in  the  press;  Sunday  sup 
plements  and  trade  papers  alike  carried  illustrations  of  what  a  com 
munity  of  Motohomes  would  look  like  and  what  sort  of  truck  would 
carry  them  from  the  factory  to  the  site.  In  late  1935,  however,  there 
were  several  disputes  among  the  backers  59  and  the  management  of 
Houses,  Inc.,  and,  for  reasons  which  were  primarily  personal,  Foster 
Gunnison  sold  out  his  interest  and  went  to  New  Albany,  Ind.,  to 
found  his  own  company.  General  Electric  carried  on  Houses,  Inc., 
for  about  another  year  without  much  success  and  then  liquidated  it. 


3.  American  Houses,  Inc. 

Meanwhile,  American  Houses,  Inc.,  which  had  had  an  independent 
existence  of  its  own  since  its  inception  in  1933,  continued  on  its 

58  500,000  people  are  said  to  have  visited  the  Motohome  during  a  six-month 
exhibition. 

59  By  October  1935  General  Electric  had  bought  out  American  Radiator's  share 
in  Houses,  Inc.,  and  owned  it  outright. 

41 


way  under  the  leadership  of  its  founder,  Robert  W.  McLaughlin.80 
The  Motohome,  of  which  only  about  150  had  been  sold,  was  aban 
doned.61  Emphasis  was  placed  on  reaching  the  low-income  market 
with  a  conventional  product  rather  than  the  middle-income  market 
with  a  "better  than  conventional"  one.62  In  addition,  American 
Houses  radically  altered  its  designs  by  adopting  peaked  roofs,  wood 
sheathing,  clapboard  exteriors,  and  plywood  interiors.  The  steel 
frame  was  retained  for  another  two  years,  until  1938,  when  it  was 
discarded  in  favor  of  conventional  wood  framing  because  the  latter 
was  more  flexible,  easier  to  use  with  other  materials,  and  could  be 
fabricated  with  less  elaborate  equipment  in  the  plant.  By  the  end 
of  the  decade  American  Houses'  system  was  of  traditional  platform 
frame  construction,  and  the  extent  of  prefabrication  had  been  re 
duced  to  precutting  and  partial  preassembly  of  panels.63  There  was 
developing  within  the  company  at  the  same  time  a  trend  towards  work 
ing  through  contractors  who  were  building  projects  rather  than 
selling  through  dealers  to  individual  customers.  While  it  was  thus 
changing  its  pattern  of  operations,  American  Houses  grew  to  the 
point  where,  at  the  beginning  of  the  war,  it  was  one  of  the  leading 
prefabricators  in  the  United  States.64 


4.  Gunnison 

In  the  course  of  the  same  period,  Gunnison  had  also  developed 
one  of  the  best-known  firms  in  the  industry.65  He  had  begun  in  a 

60  Now  a  member  of  the  Board  of  Directors. 

61  Possible  reasons:  sales  resistance  to  its  appearance;  its  mechanical  core  re 
quired  servicing  by  American  Houses;  it  was  overloaded  with  equipment  manu 
factured  by  its  original  sponsors. 

62  The  minimum  Motohome  was  a  single-story  four-room  house  with  garage 
selling    at    $4,950,    erected    but    less    lot.      Other    models    were    priced    up    to 
$15,000. 

<*The  Architectural  Forum,  73  (July  1940),  69 ff. 

Later  (1943)  American  Houses  began  to  describe  its  business  as  a  "refining 
operation,"  a  stage  between  the  manufacturer  of  raw  materials  and  the  con 
tractor. 

64  One  of  American  Houses'  most  successful  projects  was  a   136-house  sub 
division  for  Bethlehem  Steel  Co.  near  Baltimore,  Md.,   1939-1940.     The  four- 
room  house  was  priced,  with  lot,  at  $2,750.     At  about  the  same  time  American 
Houses  was  also  building  in  another  price  range:    garden  apartments  in  New 
Rochelle,  N.  Y.,  to  rent  at  $20  a  room  (loc.  ctf.). 

65  Starting  in  1935  as  Gunnison  Magic  Homes,  Inc.,  the  name  was  changed 
in  1937  to  Gunnison  Housing  Corporation,  and  in  1944  to  Gunnison  Homes,  Inc. 

42 


modest  way,  renting  a  small  plant  in  which  to  produce  his  stressed 
skin  plywood  panel  houses.  The  first  of  these,  even  though  of  tradi 
tional  appearance,  aroused  a  good  deal  of  protest,  but  this  stemmed 
mainly  from  local  building  people  who  saw  their  interests  threatened. 
Opposition  diminished  and  public  acceptance  grew  as  Gunnison  and 
his  houses  became  known.  The  1937  spring  flood  of  the  Ohio  River 
accidentally  proved  beneficial  by  showing  that  the  houses,  some 
of  which  had  been  immersed,  were  of  sound  construction  and  by 
giving  Gunnison  an  opportunity  to  compete  with  conventional 
builders  in  a  relief  project  undertaken  by  the  New  Albany  Housing 
Authority,  a  project  which  measurably  added  to  his  prestige.  Em 
phasis  had,  from  the  beginning,  been  on  low-cost  homes 66  sold 
through  dealers  to  the  ultimate  consumer.  There  was  a  brief  at 
tempt  at  marketing  through  the  building  of  housing  projects  under 
the  Gunnison  Village  Plan,67  but  the  overall  trend  was  in  the  oppo 
site  direction,  towards  the  evolution  of  a  system  of  retail  merchandis 
ing  that  would  diversify  sales  risk  by  making  many  small  sales  to 
individual  customers.  Gunnison  brought  to  prefabrication  the  abil 
ity  and  approach  of  an  organizer  and  salesman.  He  was  more 
determined  than  most  prefabricators  have  been  to  break  completely 
with  the  traditional  operations  of  housebuilding  and  to  draw  his 
personnel  and  his  manufacturing  and  marketing  methods  from  fields 
characterized  by  true  mass  production.  In  retrospect  his  influence 
appears  as  a  major  factor  in  shaping  one  of  the  important  market 
ing  patterns  of  the  industry. 


5.  The  Nature  of  Efforts  by  Big  Business 

A  brief  account  of  the  early  phases  of  several  enterprises  can 
hardly  do  justice  to  the  effort  expended  on  prefabrication  in  the 
thirties,  but  a  few  examples  may  suffice  to  show  the  kind  and  extent 
of  activity  by  big  and  little  business. 

Regarding  the  large  corporations,  it  might  be  said  that  their  re- 

66  In  1936  a  four-room,  24'  X  32'  house  sold  for  $2,650  erected  but  less  lot. 
The  "Miracle  Home"  offered  in  1939  was  priced  at  $2,950;  $350  down,  $21  a 
month. 

67  Under  this  plan  a  local  corporation  would  acquire  land,  erect  a  community  of 
Gunnison  homes,  and  manage  it  after  completion.     80%  or  in  some  cases  90%  of 
the  total  value  of  the  completed  project  was  to  be  provided  by  an  FHA-insured 
mortgage.      The    balance   would   be   represented   by   a    stock   issue    of   which 
Gunnison  Housing  Corporation  would  own  a  portion,  the  rest  being  held  by 
local  investors. 

43 


search  was  generally  biased  by  some  motive  other  than  the  indus 
trialization  of  housing;  often  they  designed  a  house  to  use  the 
maximum  amount  of  whatever  material  they  produced.  This  is  not 
to  deny  that  the  materials  and  equipment  producers,  who,  of  all 
the  elements  in  the  building  industry,  were  the  only  ones  capable  of 
financing  research  on  a  large  scale,  did  make  great  contributions  in 
improving  their  own  products.  There  also  was  significant  progress 
in  mechanical,  electrical,  and  heating  equipment,  and  in  insulation, 
wallboards,  flooring,  roofing,  and  glass.  But  effort  at  the  integration 
of  parts,  research  in  house  design,  and  studies  in  construction  tech 
niques—these  were  largely  neglected.  Development  work  by  large 
corporations  in  prefabrication  remained  embryonic;  rarely,  if  ever, 
was  an  idea  carried  through  to  the  pilot  plant  level.  On  the  mat 
ter  of  distribution  there  was  little  significant  activity.  The  idea 
that  an  organization  for  mass  distribution  of  houses  would  have  to 
be  established  before  there  could  be  any  mass  production  had  nod 
ding  approval  in  theory  but  little  application  in  practice.  Grandiose 
promotion  schemes  there  were,  but  these  should  not  be  confused  with 
serious  attempts  at  establishing  a  marketing  pattern,  arranging  for 
financing,  meeting  code  difficulties,  and  overcoming  problems  at 
the  site.  This  is  not  meant  as  an  indictment  of  all  the  large  cor 
porations;  some  put  a  good  deal  of  effort  into  developing  their 
products  and  struggled  for  a  while  with  the  idea  of  selling  a  house, 
but  ultimately  they  retired  for  the  most  part  to  selling  prefabricated 
components,  usually  for  non-residential  construction.  The  sub 
sidiaries  of  Great  Lakes  Steel  Corporation  68  and  American  Rolling 
Mills  Company  69  may  serve  as  illustrations. 

Yet  it  is  probably  fair  to  remark  that  the  large  corporations  never 
really  threw  their  full  resources  into  the  fight.  To  a  certain  extent 
this  may  have  been  a  manifestation  of  the  inertia  of  bigness.  But 
probably  more  than  this  it  was  a  reflection  of  the  organization  of  the 
building  industry.  There  is,  first  of  all,  a  basic  schism  of  long  stand 
ing  in  this  industry.70  On  the  one  hand  are  the  manufacturing  and 
construction  interests  whose  profits  stem  from  the  production  of 
buildings,  and,  on  the  other,  the  rentier  and  realty  interests  whose 
profits  stem  from  the  ownership  of  buildings  (and  land).  Where  a 
high  rate  of  production  might  lead  to  a  disturbance  of  established 
values  a  conflict  of  interests  is  apt  to  occur,  and  the  position  of  the 

68  Stran-Steel. 

69  Steel  Buildings,  Inc.,  and  The  Insulated  Steel  Construction  Co. 

70  James  Marston  Fitch,  American  Building;  The  Forces  That  Shape  It  (Bos 
ton:  Houghton  Mifflin,  1948),  pp.  334-9. 

44 


rentier  interests  who  control  land  and  home  financing  is  in  this 
case  a  very  strong  one.  Furthermore,  the  nature  of  the  housebuild 
ing  process  up  to  now  has  been  such  that  no  single  person,  organi 
zation,  or  even  industry  has  a  sufficient  stake  in  the  completed 
house  (in  terms  of  dollar  value)  to  justify  research  and  develop 
ment  in  the  fabrication,  assembly,  and  overall  construction  of  the 
house  itself  and  the  creation  of  coordinated  marketing  processes.71 
Because  his  own  stake  in  the  house  is  small,  no  supplier  makes  a 
serious  effort  to  reduce  the  use  of  his  product  or  service— though 
this  might  lead  to  greater  overall  efficiency.  Each  attempts  rather 
to  increase  its  use,  firm  in  the  knowledge  that  what  he  does  makes 
little  difference  in  the  total  cost.  This  attitude  has  been  seen  through 
out  the  field,  in  labor  organizations,  materials  producers,  and  fixture 
and  equipment  manufacturers  alike.  There  has  been  no  element 
in  the  housebuilding  industry  with  sufficient  motivation  and  with 
sufficient  power  and  means  of  control  to  initiate  fundamental  changes 
in  the  fabrication  and  construction  processes  and  carry  them  through 
to  the  final  product.  Another  factor  in  the  housing  field  which  might 
deter  a  large  corporation  from  directing  its  research  efforts  in  that 
direction  is  the  likelihood  that  marketing  outlets  for  the  house 
package  would  be  in  direct  conflict  with  existing  marketing  outlets 
upon  which  the  company  might  be  in  large  measure  dependent. 
There  was  rarely  sufficient  likelihood  of  profit  to  warrant  taking  such 
a  risk.  In  addition,  experienced  salesmen  were  well  aware  that  pub 
lic  attitudes  about  the  home  are  more  strongly  entrenched  than 
attitudes  towards  other  less  historic  and  less  emotion-loaded  products. 


6.  The  Role  of  Small  Firms 

Because  of  the  relative  inactivity  of  the  large  corporations  the 
role  of  the  small  entrepreneur,  that  is,  the  innovator  of  relatively 

71  This  point  has  been  made  many  times,  notably  recently  by  C.  F.  Rassweiler, 
Vice-President  for  Research  and  Development,  Johns-Manville  Corporation,  in  a 
talk  before  the  Annual  Fall  Meeting  of  The  Producers'  Council,  Inc.,  New  York, 
September  30,  1948;  and  by  Robert  W.  McLaughlin,  architect,  in  a  talk  at  the 
Massachusetts  Institute  of  Technology,  February  26,  1948.  McLaughlin  stated 
that  his  studies  of  a  "typical"  750  sq.  ft.  low-cost  house  showed  that  the  largest 
single  element  of  cost,  dimension  lumber,  represented  less  than  10%  of  the 
total  final  cost.  By  the  same  token,  one  may  find  here  one  of  the  keys  to  a 
successful  approach  to  prefabrication— capital  aggregations  and  competent  staffs 
large  enough  to  bring  vertical  integration  to  the  whole  process  of  housebuilding. 


fest  financial  resources,  was  a  quite  important  one.  There  were 
Jy  scores  in  this  category,  but  the  vast  majority  never  got  be 
yond  the  initial  stage  of  invention.  Throughout  the  decade  there 
continued  the  almost  naive  belief  that  the  invention  of  some  joint  or 
wall  section  was  the  answer  to  the  problem.  Some  went  further 
and  designed  floor,  roof,  and  partition  details;  a  still  smaller  group 
went  on  to  consider  the  mechanical  equipment  in  the  house;  and 
only  a  few  attempted  to  outline  and  organize  a  pattern  of  opera 
tions  that  included  all  phases  of  the  enterprise  including  distribu 
tion.  The  number  of  would-be  innovators  in  this  period  was  so 
formidable  that  it  would  be  hopeless  to  attempt  here  a  review  of 
even  the  better  half.  Instead  we  shall  look  briefly  at  the  field  as  a 
whole  and  point  out  the  broad  trends. 


F.  General  Trends  and  Characteristics 


1.  Ideas  and  the  Public  Mind 

One  clue  to  the  kind  of  thinking  that  was  going  on  may  be  found 
in  the  Symposium  on  Prefabrication  sponsored  in  1935  by  Richard 
son  Wright,  editor  of  House  and  Garden.  Gathered  for  dinner  and 
debate  were  some  dozen  people  who  had  achieved  a  certain  emi 
nence  in  the  field.  The  discussion  ranged  over  many  aspects  of  the 
prefabricated  house:  its  advantage  over  conventional  houses,  its 
optimum  useful  life,  the  problem  of  financing,  the  question  of  modern 
design,  prefinishing  versus  site  finishing  of  panels,  etc.  The  steno 
graphic  report  of  the  Symposium  72  contains  some  remarks  that  are 
interesting  in  retrospect: 

John  Ely  Burchard,  vice-president  of  Bemis  Industries,  Inc., 
Boston: 

It  is  very  important  that  provision  be  made  for  financing  the  houses,  and 
the  prefabricator  cannot  dump  the  problem  in  the  lap  of  the  banks.  Un 
questionably  the  prefabricated  house  will  be  a  sounder  and  more  uniform 
security  but  the  industry  itself  must  make  some  arrangements  for  financing. 

Raymond  V.  Parsons,  consulting  engineer,  Johns- M an ville  Corpora 
tion,  New  York  City: 

72  House  and  Garden,  LXVIII  (December  1935),  65-72. 

46 


It  can  almost  be  taken  for  granted  that  when  good  prefabricated  houses 
become  a  fact  their  architectural  style  will  be  different  from  the  quaint 
English  cottages  and  Cape  Cod  Colonials  that  are  the  present  favorites  of 
the  speculative  builders.  The  idea  that  we  should  take  new  and  better 
building  materials  and  mould  them  into  the  lines  and  textures  of  old  ma 
terials  possessing  any  number  of  shortcomings  is  abhorrent. 

Howard  T.  Fisher,  president  of  General  Houses,  Inc.,  Chicago: 

The  final  decision,  in  the  matter  of  design,  will  of  course  depend  on  what 
the  public  wants.  But  in  everything  else  the  public  has  shown  its  prefer 
ence  for  the  best  in  modern  design,  and  I  doubt  if  they  will  pay  extra  for 
faked  imitations  of  the  past  when  they  buy  their  houses.  As  a  matter  of 
fact,  I  believe  the  greatest  selling  point  these  houses  will  have  in  the  next 
decade  will  be  their  style. 

Robert  L.  Davison,  Director  of  Housing  Research,  John  B.  Pierce 
Foundation,  Raritan,  N.  J.: 

I  can't  agree  with  that  [Fisher's  statement  that  a  'sloping  roof  becomes 
economically  unsound  because  it  is  too  inflexible'];  it  depends  on  the 
material  used.  We  have  worked  with  one  material  where  a  flat  roof 
was  the  only  logical  solution,  and  now  we  are  working  with  a  material 
which  cries  out  for  a  pitched  roof. 

Fisher  (on  what  the  useful  life  of  the  prefabricated  house  should 
be): 

I  think  if  the  cost  could  be  correspondingly  reduced  it  should  be  as  short 
as  possible— up  to  a  certain  point!  ...  It  would  obviously  be  more  eco 
nomical,  due  to  the  obsolescence  factor,  to  buy  a  house  that  would  last,  say, 
fifteen  years,  and  which  would  cost  only  60%  of  a  house  that  would  last 
thirty  years,  if  that  were  possible.  We  have  been  building— this  is  par 
ticularly  true  of  England— for  too  great  a  period  of  time.  .  .  .  What 
would  be  the  sense  in  building  a  refrigerator  to  last  100  years  when  you 
know  improvements  will  be  constantly  coming  into  the  market? 

This  may  have  been  the  first  symposium  on  the  subject;  it  was 
by  no  means  the  last.  The  press,  lay  and  technical,  was  very  gener 
ous  in  its  attention  to  prefabrication  and  produced  words  much 
faster  than  prefabricators  did  houses.  The  inventor's  desire  for 
publicity  was  of  course  abetted  by  the  editors  and  apparently  even 
by  the  general  public,  whose  curiosity  and  interest  in  the  home 
made  it  receptive  to  most  of  what  was  said.  If  a  house  suspended 
from  a  mast  was  no  longer  a  sensation,  then  perhaps  a  mobile  house 
was.  The  influence  of  the  trailer  craze  that  hit  America  about  1937 
spread  into  housing  circles,  and  it  was  not  long  before  someone 
had  figured  out  how  to  cure  our  social  ills  with  mobile  dwelling 

47 


units.  There  were  houses  of  copper  and  of  cotton;  houses  could  be 
hauled  down  Main  Street  or  floated  down  a  river;  and  a  hundred 
names,  from  "prefabs"  to  "motorized  zipper  housing/'  were  bestowed 
upon  these  proposals.  Probably  all  this  publicity  did  more  harm 
than  good.  It  led  many  people  to  believe  that  some  miracle  would 
solve  the  problem,  and  at  the  same  time  it  confused  them  about  the 
nature  of  that  miracle,  what  the  prefabricated  house  looked  like, 
and  where  it  could  be  bought  and  for  how  much. 


2.  External  Obstacles 

Prefabricators  encountered  a  number  of  external  obstacles  as  they 
tried  to  bring  enterprises  from  the  experimental  stage  into  commer 
cial  production.  Such  obstacles  stemmed  in  part  from  local  mate- 
rials  dealers  who  might  decline  to  sell  to  the  prefabricator's  dealer 
certain  items  needed  to  finish  the  house,  or  to  grant  him  a  line  of 
credit;  or  who  might  bring  pressure  on  the  local  building  inspector 
not  to  grant  a  building  permit.  They  were  due  in  part,  also,  to 
organized  labor,  not  so  much  because  of  actual  fights,  although  these, 
too,  occurred,  as  because  of  passive  resistance  and  refusal  to  handle 
prefabricated  material.  The  banks  and  local  FHA  offices  presented 
another  type  of  obstacle  in  their  reluctance  to  lend  or  insure  loans 
on  prefabricated  houses  and  in  their  tendency  to  make  low  ap 
praisals  for  mortgage  purposes.  Not  the  least  of  a  prefabricator's 
troubles  were  those  arising  from  local  building  codes  written  in 
terms  of  specification  rather  than  performance,  and  very  often  ex 
cluding  his  type  of  construction.  Where  the  code  contained  a  clause 
permitting  new  types  of  construction  if  the  building  inspector  was 
satisfied,  as  the  result  of  a  test,  that  the  system  was  adequate,  such 
tests  had  to  be  made  at  the  prefabricator's  expense.  Sometimes 
one  inspector  would  refuse  to  accept  results  of  a  test  made  in  an 
other  locality,  or  there  would  be  a  lengthy  court  case  involving  a 
code  issue.  Not  infrequently  the  mere  prospect  of  such  obstacles 
was  enough  to  dissuade  the  prefabricator  from  marketing  in  a  cer 
tain  area,  and  those  firms  hardy  enough  to  pioneer  in  this  respect 
were  required  to  spend  a  major  part  of  their  energy  simply  in  over 
coming  the  various  types  of  external  resistance. 


3.  Trends  in  Design 

At  the  Chicago  World's  Fair  of  1933  the  modern  house  exhibit 
contained  only  three  dwellings  which  were  prefabricated  to  any  im 
portant  extent:  General  Houses'  house  of  steel;  Stran-Steel's  house 
embracing  that  company's  close-spaced  frame  system,  and  the 
Rostone  Corporation's  house  of  precast  synthetic  stone.  This  was 
not  a  complete  representation  of  the  embryonic  house  manufactur 
ing  industry,  nor  was  it  especially  successful  in  selling  the  idea  of 
prefabrication.  At  about  the  same  time  the  files  of  Bemis  Industries 
and  of  United  States  Steel  Corporation's  prefabrication  advisor  con 
tained  some  40  or  50  American  systems  which  had  been  proposed 
and  not  yet  abandoned.  By  the  end  of  1935  The  Architectural 
Forum,  already  watching  prefabrication  as  a  parent  might  watch 
a  precocious  child,  could  list  some  33  systems  which  were  supposed 
to  be  commercially  available.73  Of  these,  16  were  steel  frame  con 
struction  using  panels  of  various  materials  such  as  asbestos  cement, 
precast  concrete,  steel,  or  composition  board;  five  were  of  steel  load- 
bearing  panels;  eight  were  of  precast  concrete;  one  was  of  precast 
gypsum;  two  were  of  wood  frame;  and  only  one  was  of  plywood. 
Of  25  commercially  available  systems  which  the  Forum  74  reported 
in  1938,  15  used  steel,  two  used  plywood,  and  precast  concrete  was 
still  a  challenge  not  to  be  abandoned,  with  five  systems  in  use. 

By  the  end  of  the  decade  a  swing  away  from  steel  was  visible. 
On  the  technical  front,  the  combination  of  insulation,  condensation, 
and  corrosion  problems  had  at  least  temporarily  defeated  many  of 
the  proponents  of  the  steel  house.  Another  and  more  formidable 
obstacle  was  the  problem  of  selling  houses  fast  enough  to  justify 
a  large  investment  in  plant  and  equipment.  No  matter  how  well 
steel  might  be  suited  to  industrialized  production  methods,  these 
methods  usually  required  a  very  substantial  capital  investment  in 
manufacturing  facilities.  Consequently,  production  at  low  volume 
would  be  high-cost  production,  and  costs  could  not  be  brought  down 
through  mass  production  until  a  system  of  mass  distribution  had  been 
established. 

Where  was  the  vicious  circle  to  be  broken?  Perhaps  by  using  a 
material  that  would  be  economical  even  at  low  volume,  although  it 
might  lend  itself  less  to  industrialized  methods  and  ultimate  cost 

73  J.  Andre  Fouilhoux,  "Prefabricated  Units  for  the  Home,"  The  Architectural 
Forum,  LXIII  (December  1935),  544-76. 

""The  Architectural  Forum,  68  (February  1938),  66,  70. 

49 


reduction.  Wood  was  such  a  material,  and  it  was  increasingly 
adopted.  Indeed,  this  was  one  of  the  outstanding  trends  in  pre- 
fabrication  during  the  latter  part  of  the  thirties— the  abandonment 
of  metals  and  of  grandiose  schemes  which  had  come  to  nothing, 
for  the  use  of  wood  on  a  more  modest  scale  in  a  way  that  involved 
but  a  limited  amount  of  prefabrication.  Whether  the  metals  would, 
in  the  end,  prove  to  be  the  most  useful  materials  for  the  industrial 
ized  production  of  housing  was  for  history  to  tell.  Many  held  out 
hopes  for  their  success  in  the  long  run,  but  they  had  received  at  least 
a  temporary  setback. 


4.  The  Achievement 

By  1940  there  were  not  more  than  30  firms  75  in  existence  which 
were  manufacturing  and  selling  prefabricated  houses  on  a  steady 
basis.78  The  great  bulk  of  the  production  was  of  a  sort  that  in 
volved  comparatively  little  in  the  way  of  new  materials  or  prefabri 
cation:  precut  and  panelized  wood  frame  (dry- wall)  construction 
(see  Figure  10).  All  in  all,  excluding  the  precut  houses,  not  more 
than  10,000  prefabricated  units  77  were  produced  between  1935  and 
1940,  or  less  than  1%  78  of  all  the  single-family  homes  built  in  non- 
farm  areas  during  that  period. 

75  The  files  of  the  Bemis  Foundation  would  indicate  this. 

76  Among  the  more  prominent  of  these  were: 

Adirondack  Log  Cabin  Co.,  Inc.,  New  York,  N.  Y. 

Allied  Housing  Associates,  Inc.,  Langhorne,  Pa. 

American  Houses,  Inc.,  New  York,  N.  Y. 

Crawford  Corporation,  Baton  Rouge,  La. 

Ivon  R.  Ford,  Inc.,  McDonough,  N.  Y. 

General  Houses,  Inc.,  Chicago,  111. 

Gunnison  Housing  Corporation,  New  Albany,  Ind. 

Harnischfeger  Corporation,  Port  Washington,  Wis. 

E.  F.  Hodgson  Co.,  Boston,  Mass. 

Houston  Ready-Cut  House  Co.,  Houston,  Tex. 

National  Homes  Corporation,  Lafayette,  Ind. 

Pease  Woodwork  Company,  Inc.,  Cincinnati,  O. 

Southern  Mill  &  Manufacturing  Co.,  Tulsa,  Okla. 

Willisway  Construction  Co.,  Chicago,  111. 

77  No  precise  figures  could  be  found.     This  is  the  estimate  of  Miles  L.  Colean, 
American   Housing;    Problems   and   Prospects    (New   York:    Twentieth   Century 
Fund,  1944),  p.  147. 

™  Housing  Statistics  Handbook,  p.  6. 

50 


5.  Summary 

These,  then,  were  the  characteristics  of  prefabrication  in  the 
thirties:  a  huge  amount  of  interest,  but  few  houses;  active  participa 
tion  in  various  ways  by  non-commercial  institutions,  government 
agencies,  and  the  large  corporations;  a  profusion  of  structural  ideas 
only  a  few  of  which  were  technically  and  economically  sound;  and 
the  failure  of  these  to  achieve  real  commercial  success  on  a  large 
scale  because  no  one  had  yet  brought  together  enough  intelligence 
and  capital  to  develop  an  integrated  building  organization  whose 
operations  extended  from  the  procurement  of  materials  through 
manufacturing  to  selling,  financing,  erecting,  and  servicing  the 
home.79  Among  the  firms  which  sold  houses  on  a  continuing  basis 
there  were  several  noticeable  traits.  There  had  been  a  retreat  from 
steel  to  wood,  and  from  flat  roofs  and  battens  to  Cape  Cod  cottages. 
On  the  average,  more  and  more  was  being  included  in  the  house 
package,  though  as  yet  few  companies  had  gone  beyond  the  shipping 
of  wall  panels  and  either  panelized  or  precut  floor  and  roof  mem 
bers  to  the  packaging  of  a  complete  house  with  all  materials  and 
mechanical  equipment.  There  was,  furthermore,  a  very  minimum  of 
prefmishing.  And,  in  the  field  of  distribution,  there  were  at  least 
two  emerging  patterns,  besides  those  of  the  firms  which  catered  to 
such  specialized  shelter  needs  as  vacation  cottages  and  oil  field 
dwellings.  One  was  the  dealer  organization,  exemplified  by  Gunni- 
son,  through  which  many  dealers  sold  houses  one  at  a  time  to  a 
customer  at  a  time;  the  other  was  the  array  of  contractors  and  opera 
tive  builders  through  which  American  Houses  was  selling  its  product 
in  large  groups  to  an  anonymous  market. 


G.  The  Analogy  with  the  Automobile 

One  other  characteristic  of  the  thirties  which  deserves  mention  is 
the  tendency  to  draw  an  analogy  with  the  automobile  industry;  it  is 
one  that  has  dogged  prefabrication  throughout  most  of  its  history, 
but  had  an  especially  large  influence  in  shaping  the  theories  of  this 
period.  Writers  never  tired  of  pointing  out  the  example  set  by 
Detroit  in  the  mass  production  and  mass  distribution  of  automobiles 
and  never  ceased  lamenting  the  fact  that  the  housebuilders  had  not 

79  For  an  outline  of  reasons  for  failures  in  prefabrication,  see  John  E.  Burchard, 
"How  Better  Houses  WiU  be  Built,"  Technology  Review,  39  (July  1937),  415-20. 


wrought  similar  miracles.  But  in  their  haste  to  draw  the  analogy  and 
in  their  impatience  with  the  building  industry,  they  often  forgot  to 
consider  important  factors.  An  obvious  one  is  the  bulk  and  weight 
of  the  product,  which  directly  affect  the  optimum  degree  of  factory 
assembly  and  the  optimum  factory  size  and  location. 


1.  Subsidies  and  Land 

Perhaps  not  so  obvious  is  the  fact  that  the  housing  industry  had 
yet  to  receive  any  such  subsidy  as  the  transportation  industry  had 
received— the  canals  and  railroads  in  the  form  of  land  grants,  and  the 
automobile  industry  in  the  form  of  roads  and  highways.80  Cer 
tainly,  transportation  depended  no  more  definitely  upon  cheap  land 
than  did  housing.  A  public  program  to  plan  land  use  and  write 
down  high  land  costs  for  housing  might  therefore  be  defended  as 
was  an  equivalent  subsidy.  Indeed,  such  an  opinion  was  expressed, 
not  by  long-haired  radicals,  but  by  the  business  magazine,  Fortune, 
which  in  1932  wrote:  81 

The  $2,000  house  on  the  $2,000  lot  is  no  answer  to  the  demand  for  a 
$4,000  dwelling.  Obviously,  however,  industry  cannot  alone  insure  the 
stability  and  initial  economy  of  the  land.  The  fact  is  that  aside  from 
temporary  conditions  due  to  the  present  emergency,  land  in  or  near  urban 
centers  where  the  housing  need  is  greatest  will  not  be  available  at  the 
price  necessary.  The  human  inclination  to  speculate  in  land  values  will 
see  to  that.  Nor  will  neighborhoods  protect  themselves  (and  their  mort 
gagees)  against  blight  of  their  own  accord.  Only  some  form  of  govern 
mental  intervention  can  secure  the  ends  desired.  It  is  therefore  obvious 
to  the  merest  selfish  considerations  of  private  profit  that  the  housing  manu 
facturers  must  associate  themselves  in  their  land  purchases  and  in  the 
planning  of  their  houses  on  the  land,  with  some  organization  having  gov 
ernmental  powers  to  condemn  land  in  the  first  place  and  governmental 
powers  to  protect  it  afterwards. 

Our  concern  is  not  the  soundness  of  this  argument,  but  merely  the 
issues  it  raises:  first,  unlike  automobiles,  houses  are  not  complete 
until  they  are  placed  on  land,  and  the  price  of  land  is  a  part  of  the 
total  over  which  the  manufacturer  has  no  control;  second,  public 

80  Before  1927  motor  vehicle  owners  paid  less  in  motor  vehicle  taxes  than 
"their  share"  of  road  and  street  costs  (Automobile  Facts  and  Figures,  ed.  22 
[Detroit:  Automobile  Manufacturers  Association,  1940],  pp.  48-9).  The  public 
powers  used  in  road  construction  are  much  more  important  in  this  respect,  how 
ever,  than  the  financial  assistance  itself. 

**  Fortune,  VI  (July  1932),  107. 

52 


intervention  and  public  subsidy  have  played  a  part  in  the  indus 
trialization  of  more  than  one  aspect  of  the  national  economy,  and  in 
comparing  the  industrialization  of  shelter  with  that  of  other  com 
modities,  they  should  not  be  overlooked. 


2.  The  Character  of  the  Innovation 

A  third  point  often  neglected  is  this:  of  the  new  products  which 
have  successfully  been  mass  produced  and  distributed,  most  have 
either  offered  a  quality  or  service  that  differed  substantially  from 
that  of  existing  objects  intended  for  the  same  purpose,  or  else  they 
have  succeeded  in  performing  a  service  that  no  previous  object  pro 
vided  at  all.  The  radio,  the  telephone,  and  the  automobile  are  all 
examples  of  the  latter.  True,  there  were  means  of  communication 
and  transportation  at  the  time  of  each  of  these  inventions,  but  the 
new  service  was  radically  different  from  any  existing  at  the  time. 

Now  consider  the  house.  With  one  or  two  possible  exceptions,  no 
prefabricated  house  has  yet  provided  shelter  services  that  a  con 
ventionally  built  house  could  not  duplicate.  The  recent  inventions 
which  have  entered  the  home,  such  as  sanitary  facilities,  electric 
lighting,  cooking  and  refrigeration  equipment,  convection  and  radiant 
heating  systems,  air  conditioning,  dish-  and  clothes-washing  ma 
chines,  all  could  be  and  have  been  a  part  of  the  house  built  at  the  site 
by  traditional  methods.  For  a  long  time,  conventional  houses  have 
been  able  to  provide  perfectly  adequate  shelter;  they  have  been 
strong  enough,  have  protected  the  human  body  from  the  elements, 
and  have  enabled  it  to  maintain  a  comfortable  temperature  in  an 
environment  which  is  visually  and  acoustically  satisfactory.  The 
chief  problem  has  been  the  economic  one  of  providing  the  mass  of 
the  population  with  such  housing.  Special  factors  occasionally  favor 
the  prefabricator— remoteness  of  the  site,  importance  of  saving  time 
or  labor  at  the  site,  or  speed  in  selling,  for  example;  but  these  are  un 
usual.  Thus  he  has  had  to  offer  a  product  whose  principal  reason 
for  being  purchased  was  that  it  was  claimed  to  be  cheaper  than  a 
house  of  the  same  quality  built  by  traditional  methods. 

This  is  not  at  all  the  situation  which  faced  the  early  automobile 
manufacturers.82  No  horse,  no  matter  how  high  priced,  could  do 

82  Mark  Adams,  "The  Automobile;  A  Luxury  Becomes  a  Necessity,"  in  Walton 
Hamilton  et  al,  Price  and  Price  Policies  (New  York:  McGraw-Hill,  1938),  pp. 
27-81. 

55 


what  a  car  could.  Conversely,  there  were  many  people  who  would 
buy  a  car,  even  at  a  cost  of  several  thousand  dollars,  simply  because 
it  would  provide  excitement  and  exclusiveness.  For  more  than  ten 
years  the  automobile  manufacturers  exploited  their  product's  role 
as  a  luxury  commodity  and  sought  to  give  cars  more  weight,  power, 
comfort,  and  brass  ornaments  to  meet  the  demands  of  those  who 
could  afford  them.  It  was  not  until  Henry  Ford  began  his  sys 
tematic  move  to  reduce  prices  in  1907  that  the  trend  was  reversed, 
and  even  then  Ford  had  no  competitors  for  a  number  of  years.  Dur 
ing  the  period  of  greatest  expansion  in  the  automobile  industry  the 
demand  for  the  services  that  only  a  car  could  give— immediately 
available  mechanized  transport,  speed,  convenience,  a  new  freedom, 
and  a  new  mark  of  prestige— was  so  great  that  firms  were  able  to 
finance  their  expansion  largely  by  requiring  deposits  from  their 
dealers  in  prepayment  for  deliveries.  Later  the  industry  was  in  a 
position  to  use  its  profits  for  expansion  and  had  no  great  need  for 
recourse  to  the  banks  and  the  stock  market.  What  a  different  course 
has  marked  the  initial  stages  of  the  industrialization  of  housing! 


3.  The  Question  of  Durability 

At  least  one  other  factor  ought  to  be  considered  in  comparing  the 
mass  production  of  houses  with  that  of  other  goods:  the  life  of  the 
product.  From  the  great  durability  of  housing  arises  the  circum 
stance  that  the  prefabricator  must  compete  not  only  with  the  con 
ventional  builder  but  also  with  the  vast  supply  of  existing  housing, 
which  at  any  time  far  exceeds  the  annual  production.  From  this 
great  durability  also  stems  the  feast  and  famine  character  of  house 
building,  with  which  both  those  in  the  industry  and  those  who 
would  enter  to  revolutionize  it  must  reckon.  We  may  remember 
that  the  transition  from  a  situation  in  which  demand  represented 
primarily  first  purchases  to  that  in  which  demand  is  chiefly  for 
purposes  of  replacement  was  achieved  fairly  smoothly  in  the  auto 
mobile  and  radio  industries  because  of  the  relatively  short  life  of  the 
product.  Through  a  combination  of  technological  obsolescence,  style 
obsolescence,  and  physical  depreciation,  the  average  life  of  the  auto 
mobile  was  established  at  about  nine  years  83  and  that  of  the  radio 

83  C.  F.  Roos  and  Victor  Von  Szeliski,  "Factors  Governing  Changes  in  Do 
mestic  Automobile  Demand,"  The  Dynamics  of  Automobile  Demand  (New  York: 
General  Motors  Corporation,  1939),  p.  48. 


at  about  seven  years.84  Compare  this  with  ;the  life  of  the  house, 
which  is  often  roughly  estimated  at  70  years,  but  which  in  many 
cases  is  known  to  exceed  100  years.  Suppose  it  were  possible  to 
rehouse  most  of  America  with  manufactured  homes;  would  the 
industrialized  housing  industry  then  be  able  to  readjust  itself  to 
producing  primarily  for  a  replacement  demand?  Could  it  reduce 
the  life  of  the  house  and  still  produce  a  salable  product?  What 
about  the  cultural  values  that  a  house  symbolizes— do  these  affect 
the  nature  of  a  product  which  has  a  long  history  and  tradition  and 
is  not  just  the  child  of  an  advanced  technology?  What  about  the 
land  to  which  houses  must  be  attached,  and  the  ultraconservative 
branches  of  finance  and  law  which  deal  with  land? 

These  and  other  questions  have  to  be  considered  in  attempting 
an  analogy  between  the  mass  production  of  houses  and  of  automo 
biles.  Any  comparison  which  neglects  such  problems  can  at  best  be 
superficial. 


V.   1940-1945:  The  War  Period 


Just  as  the  prefabrication  industry  was  struggling  to  get  on  its 
feet,  the  defense  housing  program  hit  it  and  knocked  it  off  balance 
with  a  whole  new  set  of  problems.  Instead  of  a  future  of  slow 
development  through  concentration  on  key  areas  of  difficulty,  such 
as  distribution,  prefabricators  were  faced  with  the  prospect  of  a 
huge  market  or  practically  none,  depending  on  whether  or  not  the 
federal  agencies  85  in  charge  of  the  war  housing  program  could  be 
convinced  of  the  industry's  capacity  to  do  a  major  part  of  the  job. 

84  Julius  Weinberger,  "Basic  Economic  Trends  in  the  Radio  Industry,"  Pro 
ceedings  of  the  Institute  of  Radio  Engineers,  27  (November  1939),  708. 

85  The  War  and  Navy  Departments,  the  Maritime  Commission,  the  Federal 
Works  Agency— which  had  inherited  the  United  States  Housing  Authority  and 
the   Public   Buildings    Administration— the    Reconstruction    Finance    Corporation, 
and  the  Farm  Security  Administration  were  all  active  in  the  new  construction 
aspects  of  the  defense  housing  program  during  its  early  history.     On  February 
24,  1942,  the  President  ordered  the  establishment  of  the  National  Housing  Agency 
which  took  over  the  housing  functions  of  16  non-military  government  agencies 
and  units. 

55 


A.  Prefabrication  on  Trial 


In  the  early  days  of  the  program  there  was  more  than  a  little 
skepticism  expressed  in  government  quarters.  The  failures  of  pre- 
fabrication  in  the  preceding  decade  remained  more  firmly  in  mind 
than  the  occasional  successes,  and  certainly  instances  of  the  latter 
sort  had  been  of  a  modest  rather  than  an  overwhelming  nature.  But 
prefabrication  ofFered  potential  advantages,  and  after  a  good  deal  of 
investigation  and  debate  one  of  the  agencies,  the  Public  Buildings 
Administration,  arranged  a  demonstration  project  at  Indian  Head, 
Md.,  where  the  prefabricators  were  to  show  what  they  could  do. 
In  the  spring  of  1941  contracts  for  650  units  went  to  11  companies,86 
several  of  them  without  previous  experience,  which  were  to  compete 
in  the  erection  of  demountable  houses  on  sites  provided  by  PBA. 
The  systems  represented  were  chiefly  of  plywood,  insulating  board, 
or  plasterboard  on  wood  frame,  although  in  spite  of  the  materials 
situation  two  firms  used  steel  for  the  exterior  wall.  As  a  demonstra 
tion  project,  Indian  Head  was  not  a  great  success.  By  the  time 
it  was  actually  under  construction  some  13,000  prefabricated  houses 
were  already  being  built  or  on  order.87  Furthermore,  the  perform 
ance  of  the  inexperienced  firms  was  not  a  credit  to  the  industry  as  a 
whole,  and  the  problems  at  the  site,  particularly  in  the  joining,  fitting, 
and  alignment  of  panels,  served  more  to  show  the  prefabricators 
their  own  weaknesses  than  to  disprove  the  case  for  prefabrication  in 
general.  It  was  shown,  however,  that  the  prefabricators  could  pro 
duce  at  a  price  competitive  with  that  of  the  conventionally  built 
house,  especially  when  salvageability  was  taken  into  account.  An 
average  performance  in  demounting  the  house,  transporting  it  40 
miles,  and  reassembling  it  cost  $474  and  showed  that  on  a  dollar 
basis  95%  of  the  house  was  recoverable.88  Some  of  the  actual  projects 
which  got  under  way  before  the  demonstration  houses  at  Indian 
Head  had  been  started  were  more  successful.  A  large  project  in 
Vallejo,  Calif.,  of  about  1,000  Homasote  and  700  plywood  houses 
was  one  of  the  best  and  clearly  demonstrated  the  possibilities  of 

88  Allied  Housing  Associates,  Inc.,  General  Fabricators,  Inc.,  Harnischfeger 
Corporation,  E.  F.  Hauserman  Company,  Home  Building  Corp.,  Lockwall  Houses, 
Inc.,  National  Homes  Corporation,  Sears,  Roebuck  and  Co.  with  General  Houses, 
Inc.,  Standard  Houses  Corp.,  Tennessee  Coal,  Iron  &  Railroad  Co. 

*iThe  Architectural  Forum,  75  (August  1941),  107. 

**The  Architectural  Forum,  75   (September  1941),   189 ff. 

$6 


prefabrication  in  a  big  development.89  In  1941  prefabrication  was 
for  the  first  time  on  a  mass-production  basis.  More  than  18,000 
units  were  built,  probably  more  than  had  been  produced  in  the  entire 
preceding  decade. 


B.  Factors  Favorable  to  Prefabrication 


Prefabrication  was  used  in  the  war  housing  program  principally 
because  of  three  requirements:  speed,  demountability,  and  the  re 
duction  of  on-site  labor  and  congestion  to  a  minimum.  These  re 
quirements,  arising  out  of  special  situations,  did  a  good  deal  more 
to  bring  prefabrication  methods  into  the  picture  than  did  the  pre 
war  performance  of  prefabricators  in  producing  housing  under  nor 
mal  circumstances.  Although  the  industry  had  produced  thousands 
of  permanent  homes  in  the  thirties,  it  had  not  earned  a  reputation 
for  unusual  ability  in  this  field;  there  were  no  outstanding  firms  of 
great  achievement,  and  consequently  the  great  bulk  of  permanent 
housing  built  during  the  war  period,  whether  privately  or  publicly 
financed,  was  constructed  at  the  site  by  conventional  methods  or  by 
site-fabrication  techniques.  When,  however,  there  was  need  for 
obtaining  permanent  housing  very  quickly  near  a  war  construction 
job  or  in  a  locality  short  in  materials  or  building  labor  and  super 
vision,  prefabrication  often  was  adopted.  And  as  it  became  evident 
that  shifting  needs  would  be  encountered,  a  considerable  volume 
of  demountable  housing  suitable  for  long-term  use  was  built,  most 
of  which  was  prefabricated.  Prefabrication  was  also  used  in  areas 
where  it  was  necessary  to  keep  site  labor  to  a  minimum  for  security 
reasons,  such  as  at  the  atomic  bomb  projects.  After  mid-1942  almost 
all  publicly  financed  housing  was  of  a  temporary  90  type.  Not  only 
was  it  thought  that  further  migration  into  crowded  production  areas 
would  be,  in  most  cases,  of  short  duration,  but  it  became  evident  that 
as  the  shortage  of  materials  and  labor  grew  increasingly  acute  the 
standards  of  the  buildings  would  have  to  be  lowered.  This  brought 
about  such  developments  as  a  decided  lightening  of  the  structure, 

89  William  W.  Wurster,  project  engineer  on  this  project,  reserved  the  right  to 
use  entirely  experimental  design  and  construction  on  25  of  these  units.     It  should 
be  noted  that  the  construction  cost  of  these  25,  built  by  three  local  contractors, 
was  under  $2,850  each,  as  compared  with  more  than  $2,900  for  the  regular 
project  units. 

90  To  be  distinguished  from  demountable  housing. 

57 


the  exterior  use  of  sheet  materials  not  suited  to  the  weather,  the 
elimination  of  as  much  metal  as  possible,  and  the  sacrifice  of  space. 
It  also  brought  about  the  extensive  use  of  stressed  skin  (prefabri 
cated)  construction  in  an  effort  to  save  framing  lumber  and  gave 
impetus  to  dry-wall  construction  (much  of  which  was  also  prefabri 
cated),  which  was  faster  and  spared  critical  materials. 


C.  Signs  of  Pre fabrication's  Growth 


There  were  a  number  of  signs  of  the  growth  of  prefabrication 
during  this  period.  One  was  the  number  of  different  types  of  build 
ings  to  which  the  techniques  were  applied:  warehouses,  hangars, 
two-story  row  housing,  schools.  Another  was  the  amount  and  scope 
of  speculative  thinking  and  controversy.  On  the  technical  front 
the  idea  of  the  panelized  versus  the  sectional  house  was  being 
discussed,  along  with  some  variations  such  as  the  folding  house. 
Notoriety  attended  a  number  of  proposed  designs:  Martin  Wagner's 
igloo-shaped  house  of  steel,  Buckminster  Fuller's  cylindrical  house 
made  out  of  a  grain  bin  (see  Figure  11),  William  Stout's  folding 
house,  Wallace  NefFs  unprefabricated  but  interesting  hemispherical 
house  made  of  concrete  sprayed  onto  an  inflated  balloon  (Figure 
11),  and  the  Palace  Corporation's  suitcase  house  (see  Figure  12). 
Even  early  in  the  war  the  postwar  house  was  a  favorite  topic  for 
discussion,  and  a  glance  through  the  architectural  and  homeowners' 
magazines  of  these  years  would  show  how  extensively  the  ideas  of 
prefabricated  closets,  bathrooms,  and  mechanical  cores  had  taken 
hold. 

The  concept  of  overall  modular  design  also  had  increasing  ac 
ceptance,  in  theory  at  least,  and  was  reflected  in  such  diverse  plans 
as  those  of  the  Federal  Public  Housing  Authority,  Homasote  Co., 
Ratio  Structures,  and  General  Panel  Corporation  of  New  York.  And 
in  the  realm  of  distribution  there  was  much  speculation  over  the  fu 
ture  pattern  of  the  industry.  When  The  Architectural  Forum  hypothe 
sized  that  in  an  integrated  building  industry  the  prefabricator  would 
sell  to  large  developer-builders,91  Foster  Gunnison  was  quick  to 
reply  that  no  such  pattern  could  succeed  and  that  the  necessary 
diversification  of  sales  risk  could  be  had  only  if  the  prefabricator 

91  The  Architectural  Forum,  77  (October  1942),  79-80. 

58 


sold  to  a  great  many  small  dealers.92  Vaux  Wilson  announced  a 
plan  to  sell  his  Precision-Built  Homes  through  the  department 
stores  because  of  their  vast  experience  in  merchandising.  Still  an 
other  sign  was  the  amount  of  interest  in  prefabrication  shown  by 
organized  labor.  The  CIO,  which  in  the  years  just  before  the  war 
had  made  small  inroads  into  the  AFL's  building  industry  territory, 
talked  in  big  terms  of  the  industrialized  production  of  housing  and 
the  industrial  form  of  unionism  that  would  come  with  it.  A  good 
many  wartime  prefabricators  had  CIO  shops,  but  in  spite  of  a  lot 
of  conjecture  about  AFL-CIO  conflicts  in  war  housing  there  was 
little  actual  trouble.  In  light  of  the  postwar  developments  to  date, 
the  CIO's  invasion  of  the  housebuilding  industry  seems  to  have  been 
largely  a  temporary  affair. 

Another  sign  of  the  industry's  growth  was  the  formation  in  1942 
of  the  Prefabricated  Home  Manufacturers'  Association,  set  up  to 
disseminate  information,  establish  industry  standards,  study  distri 
bution  problems,  improve  manufacturing  methods,  make  cost  and 
accounting  studies,  and  serve  as  a  medium  for  the  exchange  of  ideas.93 
Prefabricated  Homes,9*  a  monthly  trade  journal  similarly  aimed  at 
giving  the  public  a  clear  and  favorable  picture  of  the  industry,  first 
appeared  in  April  1943,  instigated  at  least  in  part  by  PHMA.  In 
September  1943  PHMA  changed  its  name  to  the  Prefabricated  Home 
Manufacturers'  Institute  and  expanded  to  include  12  charter  mem 
bers,  with  Walter  Ahrens  of  Southern  Mill  &  Manufacturing  Co.  as 
president.  Among  the  first  things  for  which  PHMI  fought  were 
certain  changes  in  the  FPHA  plans  on  which,  since  September  1943, 
all  prefabricators  had  had  to  bid  for  war  housing. 

Other  indications  of  growth  in  the  industry  were  to  be  found  in 
the  number  of  active  firms  and  their  figures  on  output.  Neither  of 
these  statistics  is  ever  very  precise  because  the  lines  between  what 
is  and  what  is  not  prefabrication  and  who  is  and  who  is  not  an  active 
prefabricator  are  so  hard  to  draw.95  Even  so,  a  few  such  figures 
will  give  a  rough  idea  of  the  picture.  As  against  not  more  than  30 

92  In  an  open  letter  to  The  Architectural  Forum  for  the  Prefabricated  Home 
Manufacturers'    Association,    November    13,    1942,    in    the    files   of   the    Bemis 
Foundation. 

93  The   National  Association   of   Housing   Manufacturers,   representing   a   few 
of  the  more  unconventional  and  newer  companies,  was  organized  in  February 
1947.     Both  are  discussed  in  greater  detail  in  Part  II. 

94  From  January  1948  until  October  1949  the  magazine  was  known  as  Pre 
fabrication.     It  is  no  longer  published. 

95  Lists  of  active  prefabricators  prepared  by  different  sources  at  about  the 
same  time  have  differed  by  as  much  as  100%. 

59 


active  firms  in  early  1940,  there  were  at  least  100  firms  in  production 
by  the  end  of  1941. 96  At  that  time  a  government  investigating  com 
mittee  which  inspected  35  of  these  plants  reported  that  there  was  a 
"reasonable  certainty"  of  obtaining  27,450  units  from  the  factories 
visited,  in  quantities  of  100-2,000  each,  within  90  days  from  the 
time  orders  were  placed.97  By  April  1943  The  Architectural  Forum 
could  assert  that  "there  are  now  well  over  a  score  of  prefabrication 
plants  that  have  each  manufactured  more  than  a  thousand  houses, 
and  many  of  which  are  now  fabricating  at  the  rate  of  several  hundred 
a  month/'98 


D.  The  Contribution  of  Prefabrication 


A  final  summary  of  wartime  prefabrication  might  credit  the  indus 
try  with  200,000  units.99  Of  these,  116,390  were  publicly  financed 
under  the  Lanham  Act;  10°  16,000  were  exported  under  lend-lease; 101 
some  tens  of  thousands  were  built  by  the  Army  and  Navy  at  atomic 
energy  centers  and  American  and  overseas  bases;  and  a  compara 
tively  minor  portion  went  into  privately  financed  housing. 

But  big  as  this  200,000  figure  may  have  been  to  an  infant  industry, 
it  still  represented  but  a  small  part  of  the  total  of  approximately 

Q6The  Architectural  Forum,  76  (February  1942),  83.  A  list  of  manufac 
turers  and  systems  published  by  the  prefabrication  subcommittee  of  the  Central 
Housing  Committee  on  Research,  Design  and  Construction  in  February  1942  in 
cluded  about  200  prefabricates. 

»7  Ibid.,  p.  82. 

98  The  Architectural  Forum,  78  (April  1943),  72. 

»»The  Architectural  Forum,  84  (April  1946),  137.  Fortune,  XXXIII  (April 
1946),  127,  uses  the  same  figure,  but  probably  obtained  it  from  The  Architectural 
Forum. 

100  This   represents  about  25%   of   the  war   housing   built   with   Lanham   Act 
funds.    Of  these,  104,862  were  family  dwellings  and  11,528  were  portable  shelter 
units  designed  for  family  use.     Of  the  family  dwellings,  1,428  were  permanent, 
66,901  were  demountable,  and  36,533  were  temporary.    About  11%  of  the  104,862 
family  units  were  fabricated  in  off-site  factories  and  about  23%  in  on-site  shops. 
All  the  portable  shelter  units  were  factory  fabricated.    Source:  Housing  and  Home 
Finance  Agency,  in  a  letter  to  the  Bemis  Foundation,  March  1948. 

101  Early  in  1945  the  FPHA,  acting  for  lend-lease,  contracted  for  30,000  units. 
When  lend-lease  terminated,    16,000  of  these  had  been   started   or  completed. 
The  rest  were  not  produced.     Great  Britain  received  8,600  on  lend-lease;  France 
bought  the  balance  of  7,400  from  FPHA.     Source:   Office  of  International  In 
quiries,  Housing  and  Home  Finance  Agency,  in  an  interview,  June  4,  1948. 

60 


1,600,000  war  housing  units  provided  by  new  construction.102  It  is 
true  that  prefabricators  made  a  major  contribution  in  supplying  hous 
ing  quickly  in  a  number  of  key  areas  and  in  meeting  the  require 
ments  of  special  circumstances,  but  in  the  overall  picture  it  remains 
a  fact  that  by  far  the  largest  part  of  the  war  housing  was  built  at  the 
site  by  various  techniques  ranging  from  the  conventional  to  the  very 
advanced.  Large  projects  made  it  possible  to  embrace  many  aspects 
of  mass  production  at  the  site,  such  as  standardization,  specialization 
of  labor,  and  highly  planned  scheduling  of  processes  and  material 
flow.  Such  projects  also  encouraged  the  use  of  power  tools,  jigs, 
conveyers,  cranes,  and  other  paraphernalia  of  factory  production. 
Viewed  in  this  respect,  the  war  probably  did  more  in  rationalizing 
and  improving  the  efficiency  of  on-site  construction  than  it  did  for 
fabrication  techniques  in  the  factory,  and  it  has  been  contended  by 
some  that,  relatively,  prefabrication  was  thus  pushed  back. 

The  credit  for  this  progress  in  methods  does  not  all  belong  with 
the  conventional  building  industry.  In  a  number  of  ways  the  devel 
opment  of  site-fabrication  techniques  relied  upon  similar  techniques 
used  in  the  factory  of  the  prefabricator  who  should,  therefore,  be 
given  some  credit.  This  development  also  resulted  in  part  from 
the  efforts  of  the  government  which  did  a  considerable  amount  of 
research  on  site  fabrication  with  its  own  technical  personnel  and 
educated  a  good  many  builders  in  the  use  of  better  methods.  Yet 
the  contributions  of  the  "established"  prefabricators  (as  of  1940) 
in  "know  how"  were  perhaps  less  valuable  than  their  general  knowl 
edge  of  the  building  operation.  This  may  be  a  sign  of  their  weakness 
at  the  beginning  of  the  war  period,  for  other  firms  with  little  or  no 
previous  experience  in  prefabrication  found  it  possible  to  enter  the 
field  and  to  build  quite  as  readily,  quite  as  successfully,  and  quite  as 
profitably,  as  the  established  prefabricators.  It  is  probably  also  an 
illustration  of  the  fact  that  emergency  production  for  a  single  con 
sumer—a  government  at  war— requires  a  pattern  of  operations  very 
different  from  that  suited  to  the  private  sale  of  houses  in  normal 
times.  To  be  sure,  in  industries  other  than  housing  persons  with 
no  previous  experience  in  the  field  were  successful  operators,  notably, 
for  example,  in  shipbuilding.  But  it  is  hard  to  think  of  an  industry 
in  which  this  was  so  markedly  the  case  as  in  prefabrication.  After 
a  decade  or  more  of  gestation,  the  industry  had  not  arrived  at  the 
point  where  it  could  make  a  really  unique  and  major  contribution 

102  Housing  Statistics  Handbook,  p.  162,  Table  A;  and  Public  Housing;  the 
Work  of  the  Federal  Public  Housing  Authority  (March  1946),  p.  8. 

61 


to  an  important  war  problem.  This  reflected  not  so  much  the  in 
competence  of  the  industry  as  the  extreme  complexity  of  the  prob 
lem  and  the  relatively  small  scale  of  the  effort  with  which  it  had 
been  attacked. 


E.  The  Effect  of  the  War  on  Prefabrication 


The  war  had  a  very  positive  effect  on  prefabrication.  For  the 
first  time  production  operations  were  put  on  a  really  large-volume 
basis  (though  not  always  a  steady  one).  A  good  deal  was  learned 
about  design  and  manufacturing  techniques.  Many  firms  attained 
strong  financial  positions,  and  many  new  enterprises  entered  the 
field.  These  and  the  signs  of  the  growth  of  prefabrication  discussed 
above  point  to  the  positive  effects  of  the  war  period  on  the  industry. 

But  no  evaluation  of  the  effects  of  the  war  on  prefabrication  would 
be  complete  if  it  did  not  include  the  harmful  as  well  as  the  beneficial. 
While  the  war  gave  impetus  to  the  growth  of  prefabrication,  it  pushed 
productive  capacity  beyond  the  industry's  ability  to  distribute  through 
any  of  the  channels  it  had  thus  far  established.  It  aggravated  the 
unbalance  between  the  prefabricated  ability  to  produce  and  to  dis 
tribute.  Furthermore,  it  made  the  marketing  problem  more  difficult 
because  it  gave  the  public  a  bad  impression  of  the  product.  Whereas 
the  prewar  prefabricated  house  may  have  been  suspect  as  an  interest 
ing  freak,  the  postwar  product  was  often  stereotyped  in  the  public 
mind  as  a  dreary  shack.  A  consumer  opinion  poll  conducted  by  the 
Curtis  Publishing  Co.  in  August  1944 103  showed  that  while  74.5$  of 
those  interviewed  had  heard  of  prefabricated  houses,  only  17.2%  of 
these  would  consider  buying  one  to  live  in  all  year  round.  The  rea 
son  given  most  frequently  by  the  potential  homeowner  for  not  buying 
a  prefabricated  house  was  lack  of  strength.  Obviously,  lightness  was 
being  confused  with  weakness,  and  speedy  erection  with  short  life. 
Another  question  indicated  the  public  confusion  over  the  industry's 
diverse  marketing  methods,  probably  more  a  reflection  of  the  various 
speculative  writings  on  the  subject  than  of  the  actual  practices  them 
selves.  When  those  interviewed  were  asked  where  they  would  go  to 
buy  a  prefabricated  house,  56.7%  said  they  did  not  know;  13.7%  said 
the  manufacturer;  10.8%  said  mail-order  house  or  department  store; 
8.8%  said  dealer-builder;  and  5.2%  said  lumber  yard.  Some  two  years 

103  Urban  Housing  Survey,  Curtis  Publishing  Co.  (Philadelphia,  1945). 

62 


later,  a  Fortune  poll104  gave  much  the  same  results:  70%  had  heard 
of  prefabricated  houses,  but  only  16%  were  interested  in  living  in  them. 
Thirty-three  per  cent  said  they  would  buy  them  only  if  they  could 
get  nothing  else,  and  when  this  group  was  asked  what  it  disliked 
about  prefabricated  houses,  the  replies  were: 

Unsatisfactory  construction  (included  "not  substantial 
enough,"  "not  strong  enough,"  "not  permanent,"  "not 
warm  enough")  67.4% 

Lack  individuality  13.4% 

Too  small  4.6% 

All  other  18.4% 

Don't  know  9.6% 

(Some  gave  more  than  one  answer.) 

Thus,  in  meeting  the  need  for  demountable  and  temporary  houses 
of  the  lightest  kind  of  construction,  the  industry  was  given  an  addi 
tional  handicap  to  overcome  in  the  way  of  public  prejudice. 

104  Fortune,  XXXIII  (April  1946),  275. 


63 


Part     A  • 

3 


Chapter 


1946-1949 

GREAT  EXPECTATIONS 
AND 
DISAPPOINTMENTS 


The  preceding  chapter  outlined  the  development  of  prefabrication 
from  early  efforts  through  the  war  housing  program.  This  chapter 
is  devoted  to  a  description  of  the  industry  during  the  few  years  since 
the  end  of  the  war.  If  in  the  first  postwar  months  the  homebuying 
public  and  much  of  the  business  world  were  overly  enchanted  by  the 
promises  of  prefabrication,  they  probably  have  recently  been  as 
grossly  disenchanted,  so  that  now,  in  a  number  of  areas  at  least,  the 
opinion  is  that  prefabrication  has  been  tried  and  found  wanting;  that 
the  issue  is  settled:  "prefabrication  isn't  practical."  This  chapter 
might  well  begin  with  a  protest  against  too  great  a  disillusionment. 


I.  Background 


A.  The  Shortage 


The  background  against  which  prefabrication  played  its  role  in 
the  early  postwar  years  included,  among  other  things,  a  house-hungry 
public,  some  significant  shifts  in  political  opinion,  a  major  building 
boom,  and,  not  unrelated,  a  major  inflation.  The  nation  had  been 
hearing  about  the  postwar  dream  house  for  four  years.  On  top  of 
a  cumulative  shortage  growing  through  the  thirties  and  a  shortage 
caused  by  the  cessation  of  normal  building  during  the  war,  there 
were  returning  veterans  and  high  marriage  and  birth  rates  to  be 
reckoned  with.  It  was  estimated  that  as  many  as  3,000,000  houses 
would  have  to  be  built  in  1946  and  1947  just  to  keep  the  situation 
from  becoming  worse.1  Furthermore,  the  great  bulk  of  these  homes 
had  to  be  provided  for  families  in  the  middle-  and  lower-income 
groups.  Many  looked  to  prefabrication  to  meet  a  major  part  of  this 
need.  It  is  true  that  in  the  public  mind  there  remained  a  picture  of 
the  minimum  standards  to  which  prefabricators,  through  no  fault  of 
their  own,  had  had  to  build  during  the  war.  But  many  also  believed 
that  World  War  II  had  done  for  prefabrication  what  World  War  I 
had  done  for  the  automobile  industry.  Dream  houses  would  roll  off 
production  lines  by  the  million  and  somehow  end  up  in  suburban 

1  Wilson  W.  Wyatt,  Housing  Expediter,  Veterans'  Emergency  Housing  Pro 
gram;  Report  to  the  President  (February  7,  1946),  p.  4. 

67 


neighborhoods  behind  rose  bushes  and  white  picket  fences.  A  group 
of  startling  housing  ideas  paraded  before  the  eyes  of  the  reading  and 
movie-going  public:  the  Dymaxion  house,  the  Tournalayer,  the  "solar 
house." 2  Houses  would  be  built  of  wood,  as  in  the  past,  but  large 
numbers  would  also  be  built  of  concrete,  steel,  aluminum,  plastic- 
impregnated  paper,  and  many  completely  new  materials. 


B.  The  Wyatt  Program 


In  such  an  atmosphere,  Wilson  Wyatt  was  summoned  to  Washing 
ton  by  the  President  in  January  1946  to  become  the  Housing  Expe 
diter.  Five  weeks  later  he  submitted  a  program  to  the  President 
establishing  a  goal  of  2,700,000  housing  starts  by  the  end  of  1947 
and  calling  for  "the  same  daring,  determination,  and  hard-hitting 
teamwork"  with  which  the  nation  had  "tackled  the  emergency  job 
of  building  the  world's  most  powerful  war  machine."  3  Private  enter 
prise  was  to  assume  the  leading  role  in  this  task  with  the  aid  of  ex 
tensive  federal  measures  aimed  at  expanding  and  directing  produc 
tion.  The  labor  force  in  residential  construction  was  to  be  tripled, 
and  local  voluntary  committees  were  to  be  established  to  help  veterans 
find  homes,  eliminate  building  bottlenecks,  provide  sites,  reform 
building  codes,  and  speed  the  housing  job  in  general. 

Most  of  Wyatt's  legislative  proposals  were  enacted  by  Congress  in 
May  1946  as  the  Veterans'  Emergency  Housing  Act.4  The  program 
which  emerged  from  this  legislation  set  out  to  increase  production 
by  using  surplus  war  plants,  by  making  premium  payments  to  stimu 
late  manufacturers  of  materials,  by  guaranteeing  markets  for  new 
types  of  materials  and  prefabricated  houses,  and  by  the  financing  of 
new  enterprises  through  Reconstruction  Finance  Corporation  loans. 
It  sought  to  direct  materials  flow  by  curbing  non-residential  construc 
tion  and  establishing  a  system  of  priorities,  allocations,  and  restric 
tions  on  house  size;  and  to  check  the  strong  inflationary  tendencies 
(which  had  been  aggravated  by  the  liberalized  FHA-financing  pro- 

2  These  terms  are  explained  at  length  later  in  the  book. 

3  Wyatt,  op.  cit.,  p.  1. 

4  Public  Law  388,  79th  Congress,  approved  May  22,  1946.     Wyatt  requested 
as  an  essential  part  of  his  program  passage  of  S.  1592,  the  Wagner-Ellender-Taft 
bill.     This  was  a  comprehensive  long-range  legislation  providing   for  increased 
FHA    insurance,    public    housing,    urban    redevelopment,    and    other    measures. 
Congress  did  not  pass  this  bill,  chiefly  because  of  the  public  housing  provisions. 

68 


visions  of  the  act  itself)  by  controlling  prices  of  materials  and  finished 
houses. 

In  short,  the  Housing  Expediter  and  his  executive  powers  with  re 
spect  to  other  agencies  such  as  the  Office  of  Price  Administration  and 
the  Reconstruction  Finance  Corporation  represented  an  extension  of 
wartime  government  controls  into  a  postwar  period  of  acute  housing 
shortage.  As  a  part  of  the  overall  goal,  250,000  prefabricated  houses 
were  to  be  started  in  1946,  and  600,000  in  1947.  Although  this 
program  was  under  attack  from  certain  quarters  even  in  its  earliest 
phases,  there  was  nonetheless  a  short  period  during  which  it  ap 
peared  that  the  kind  of  cooperation  and  self-restraint  necessary  to 
success  would  in  fact  be  forthcoming.  Committees  were  organized 
on  the  local  level,  labor  leaders  pledged  full  support,  and  a  number 
of  large  industrial  enterprises  were  reported  to  be  ready  to  go  into 
prefabrication:  Henry  J.  Kaiser,  Higgins  Industries,  Inc.,  Douglas 
Aircraft  Co.,  Inc.,  Beech  Aircraft  Corp.,  Consolidated  Vultee  Aircraft 
Corporation.  This  lent  the  program  a  certain  amount  of  prestige 
and,  together  with  a  favorable  press,  tended  to  bolster  it  against 
growing  criticism  from  numerous  elements  in  the  building  industry. 
But  with  the  return  to  peacetime  activities  and  interests,  public  sup 
port  diminished;  broad  political  attitudes  changed;  the  press  and  or 
ganized  criticism  cried  out  against  "government  intervention";  gen 
eral  price  controls  were  weakened,  then  abandoned;  and  the  housing 
program  was  the  next  to  go.  After  the  November  election  had  placed 
the  Republicans  in  control  of  Congress  and  after  Wyatt  had  run  into 
considerable  opposition  from  a  few  key  men  in  the  Administration,5 
he  felt  that  the  program  was  not  going  to  receive  the  necessary  sup 
port,  and  in  early  December  he  resigned  as  Housing  Expediter.  Ten 
days  later  the  President  announced  the  end  of  most  of  the  controls; 
premium  payments,  materials  allocations,  curbs  on  non-residential 
building,  and  price  ceilings  were  abandoned.  The  market  guarantees 
and  loans  to  prefabricators,  however,  were  continued  until  the  end 
of  1947,  as  specified  in  the  law. 

In  retrospect,  it  hardly  seems  possible  to  classify  the  Wyatt  pro 
gram  as  other  than  a  failure.  Perhaps  it  was  doomed  from  the  start 
as  a  grandiose  and  somewhat  visionary  experiment.  Building  starts 
did  accelerate  in  the  late  summer,  but  the  overall  total  for  the  year 

5  Much  of  the  dispute  was  over  Wyatt's  inability  to  secure  RFC  loans  for 
selected  prefabricators.  The  final  breakdown  came  over  his  failure  to  have  the 
Dodge  war  production  plant  in  Chicago  assigned  to  Lustron  Corporation,  plus 
a  large  RFC  loan. 

69 


was  776,000  units  started,  a  good  bit  below  the  target  of  950,000.6 
Furthermore,  completions  dragged  because  of  shortages  in  materials 
and  labor.  Prefabricators  produced  a  total  of  37,200  units  in  1946 
and  37,400  in  1947  7— not  a  bad  performance  in  view  of  the  extent  of 
shortages  and  unfamiliar  restrictions,  but  far  short  of  the  program's 
ambitious  goals.  Of  these  totals  only  a  small  fraction  can  be  attributed 
to  the  government  measures.  By  the  end  of  1948  it  was  reported 
that  of  the  32  companies  which  had  secured  guaranteed  market  con 
tracts  or  loan  agreements  through  the  RFC  only  six  were  in  active 
production.8 

On  the  other  hand,  it  should  be  pointed  out  that  the  program  was 
never  really  given  a  chance.  By  the  time  the  administrative  machinery 
was  working,  hostility  was  so  great  that  few  if  any  positive  results 
could  have  been  expected.  Whether  the  reconversion  and  expansion 
would  have  been  faster  without  any  government  program  at  all,  and 
would  at  the  same  time  have  provided  for  medium-  and  low-cost 
homes  (as  critics  of  the  program  claimed)  is  a  question  that  must 
remain  unanswered.  Many  of  the  critics  spoke  from  long  experience 
and  good  common  sense.  Nevertheless,  some  of  the  boldest,  most 
risky,  and  in  the  long  run  perhaps  most  significant  ventures  would 
never  have  gotten  under  way  without  a  stimulus  from  the  govern 
ment  along  the  lines  proposed  by  Wyatt.  The  lessons  learned  from 
one  such  really  industrialized  house  manufacturer  as  Lustron,  even 
if  it  should  never  reach  its  production  goals,  may  prove  to  be  worth 
all  the  money  spent  by  the  government 9  and  the  temporary  doubts 
cast  on  prefabrication  as  a  whole.  This,  too,  is  a  question  that  re 
mains  unanswered. 

6  Both  figures  are  for  permanent  dwellings,   conventional  and  prefabricated, 
and  do  not  include  conversions  and  trailers   (for  which  the   1946  target  was 
250,000). 

7  PHMI  Washington  News  Letter,  January  30,  1948,  p.  3.     1946  total  by  the 
Office  of  the  Housing  Expediter;  1947  total  based  on  figures  estimated  by  PHMI 
and  submitted  to  the  Bemis  Foundation.     The  1948  total  has  been  estimated 
by  PHMI  at  30,000  and  1949  total  at  35,000. 

s  Business  Week,  1006  (December  11,  1948),  25. 

9  It  was  estimated  by  the  Office  of  the  Housing  Expediter  in  June  1948  that 
the  guaranteed  market  program,  at  that  time  almost  completely  closed  and 
settled,  would  not  result  in  a  loss  to  the  government  of  over  $3,000,000.  What 
losses  the  RFC  will  take  on  the  loans  it  has  made,  many  of  which  are  out 
standing,  is  hard  to  say. 


70 


C.  The  Birth  and  Death  of  Firms 


Meanwhile  the  ranks  of  the  prefabricators  had  swollen  rapidly  so 
that,  by  the  end  of  1946,  280  companies  had  received  priority  ratings 
from  the  National  Housing  Agency— as  against  less  than  100  firms  in 
the  industry  some  two  years  before.  This  rapid  expansion  served  to 
emphasize  the  ease  of  entry  into  the  industry,  but  it  was  also  a  re 
flection  of  the  fact  that  many  so-called  prefabricators  were  nothing 
more  than  distributors  of  building  materials  who  did  a  minimum  of 
work  on  the  materials  they  handled  in  order  to  secure  higher  prices 
under  existing  regulations.  There  were  others  who  called  themselves 
prefabricators  in  order  to  obtain  priorities  for  certain  materials  and 
who  hoped  to  obtain  guaranteed  market  contracts  and  capital  loans 
to  start  them  on  their  way  with  little  or  no  risk  capital  of  their  own. 
Because  the  established  firms  feared  that  their  reputations  and  that 
of  the  industry  as  a  whole  would  be  adversely  affected  by  the 
failures  of  the  newcomers  and  the  poor  quality  of  their  products, 
they  sought  to  protect  themselves  by  adopting  quality  standards  and 
by  attacking  the  program  which  had  brought  about  this  great 
influx. 

Unfortunately,  most  of  these  fears  were  well  founded.  High  ex 
pectations  attracted  new  enterprises,  and  the  new  enterprises  had  a 
high  death  rate.  Many  never  got  into  production  at  all;  many  others 
failed;  some  retired  to  more  conventional  phases  of  the  building  pat 
tern.  By  the  end  of  1947  the  number  of  active  prefabricators  was 
again  less  than  100,  and  in  the  wake  of  the  failures  there  had  grown 
a  profound  skepticism  regarding  all  that  went  by  the  name  of  pre- 
fabrication— especially  in  banking  circles.  This  purging  of  the  pre 
fabricators  was  somewhat  reminiscent  of  early  years  in  the  automo 
bile  industry,  and,  if  the  outcome  is  as  healthy,  there  may  still  be 
cause  for  optimism. 

Among  the  new  enterprises  were  several  of  real  interest,  set  up  to 
rate  along  lines  which  in  one  or  more  aspects  represented  a  greater 
reak  with  conventional  building  than  was  made  by  the  vast  majority 
prefabricators,  and  often  facing  great  difficulties  as  a  result.  In 

is  group  might  be  included  those  who  worked  with  aluminum  and 
lastic-paper  sandwich  materials,10  with  standardized,  universally 

10  Southern  California  Homes,  Inc.,  was  the  only  company  in  this  category 
come  close  to  production. 

71 


adaptable  modular  panels,11  with  the  sectional  house  idea,12  with  the 
"solar  house"  idea,13  and  perhaps,  because  the  design  of  the  house 
was  approached  with  the  same  freshness  that  has  marked  the  recent 
interior  design  of  trains,  ships,  and  aircraft,  with  the  hemispherical 
Fuller  house.14 


D.   The  Building  Boom 

All  the  above  activity  should  be  viewed  against  the  general  back 
ground  of  a  building  boom  which  proceeded  with  at  least  customary 
violence.  The  number  of  permanent  non-farm  dwelling  units  started 
with  209,000  in  1945  and  went  to  670,500  in  1946;  to  849,000  in  1947; 
to  931,300  in  1948.15  Residential  construction  costs  went  from  143.7 
in  1945  to  159.2  in  1948  to  193  in  1947  and  to  214.7  in  1948  (1939  = 
100 ).16  The  emphasis  was  primarily  on  single-family  residences  for 
sale,  and  many  families  which  might  have  preferred  to  rent  were 
forced  to  buy  in  order  to  secure  any  housing  at  all.  A  flourishing  gray 
market  in  building  materials  imparted  to  the  whole  endeavor  a  bad 
odor.  There  were  some  significantly  successful  efforts  at  producing 
good  low-cost  housing,  chiefly  by  a  few  big  operative  builders  who 
made  news  because  of  the  efficiency  of  their  large-scale  operations, 
but  by  and  large  the  housebuilding  industry  seemed  to  function  much 
as  before— especially  in  regard  to  its  characteristic  of  increasing  costs 
with  increasing  output.  With  construction  activity  using  the  avail- 

11  The  idea  of  selling  such  panels  as  building  elements  to  contractors  was  pro 
posed  at  first  by  such  companies  as  The  HomeOla  Corporation  and  General  Panel 
of  New  York,  but  in  both  cases  was  later  subordinated  to  the  merchandising  of  a 
complete  house  or  houses. 

12  In  this  country   the  Reliance  house  and   the  Prenco  house    ( produced  by 
Robert  F.  Johnson  &  Associates,  formerly  Prefabrication  Engineering  Co. )  and  in 
Great  Britain  the  AIROH  house  remain  in  this  category.     Reliance  is  now  in 
production,  and  Johnson  has  abandoned  stressed  skin  construction  for  standard 
framing,   sheathing,   and   siding   in   the   conventional   manner.      54,000   AIROH 
houses  were  produced  for  the  British  Temporary  Housing  Program,  and  an  addi 
tional  15,000  have  been  ordered  by  the  government  as  temporary  housing. 

13  Green's  Ready-Built,  which  pushed   this  idea  in   1946  and   1947,  is  now 
defunct. 

14  Fuller  Houses,  Inc.,  now  defunct. 

15  Includes  privately  and  publicly  financed  units,  prefabricated  and   conven 
tional.     Data  from  Construction,  U.  S.  Bureau  of  Labor  Statistics  (April  1949), 
p.  5. 

16  Compiled,  from  figures  of  E.  H.  Boeckh  and  Associates,  by  NHA  and  HHFA, 
Housing  Statistics  (April  1949),  p.  8. 

72 


able  resources  to  their  limit,  building  costs  were  bid  up  by  a  flood 
of  purchasing  power  created  by  wartime  savings,  high  incomes,  and, 
most  of  all,  by  easy  mortgage  credit.  Between  the  end  of  1945  and 
mid-1948  the  mortgage  debt  on  one-  to  four-family  residences  had 
risen  about  65%,  while  non-farm  family  incomes  had  increased  only 
about  25%  and  the  number  of  dwelling  units  by  less  than  10%.17  In 
1947  more  than  half  of  the  mortgage  lending  was  being  sponsored  by 
the  federal  government  under  legislation  enacted  by  Congress  (the 
Veterans'  Administration  and  Federal  Housing  Administration  pro 
grams  )  and  was  on  a  basis  that  required  a  very  minimum  of  builder's 
or  buyer's  equity,18  or  no  equity  at  all.  Factors  such  as  these  led  the 
Chairman  of  the  Board  of  Governors  of  the  Federal  Reserve  System 
to  describe  "excessively  easy  mortgage  credit"  as  "perhaps  the  most 
inflationary  single  factor  in  the  present  [November  1947]  situation."  19 

By  mid- 1948  a  change  in  the  situation  was  apparent.  Mortgage 
lending,  especially  on  small  homes,  was  tightening  up.  The  trend 
had  been  indicated  for  some  months,  and  the  expiration  in  April  of 
the  liberal  Title  VI  of  the  FHA  program  brought  the  situation  to  a 
head.  The  re-enactment  of  a  revised  Title  VI  in  the  Housing  Act  of 
1948, 20  passed  at  a  special  session  of  Congress  in  August,  again  made 
very  liberal  government-insured  credit  available  only  to  the  lowest- 
cost  houses.  A  PHMI  survey  of  its  membership  in  the  fall  found 
that  nearly  seven  out  of  10  placed  the  financing  problem  uppermost 
of  all  the  factors  limiting  their  sales.21  Prospective  homebuyers  were 
having  trouble  making  the  higher  down  payments,  and  banks  were 
slowing  down  their  lending  programs.  Other  housebuilders  reported 
the  same  difficulty.  The  lid  was  being  clamped  down.  In  the  short 
run,  building  activity  might  fall  off  until  costs  were  shaken  down,  but 
the  very  high  proportion  of  the  outstanding  mortgage  debt  which  had 
been  based  on  high  prices  would  almost  certainly  be  a  serious  con 
sideration  in  the  longer-range  aspects  of  economic  stability. 

It  might  seem  that,  in  a  situation  marked  by  an  acute  housing 
shortage  and  an  abundance  of  purchasing  power,  sales  would  present 
no  problem  and  the  prefabricators  would  have  succeeded  in  selling 
more  than  approximately  37,000  houses  per  year  in  1946  and  1947  or 
30,000  houses  in  1948.  These  figures  represent  6.3%  of  all  the  single- 

17  "The  Economic  Situation  at  Midyear,"  The  Economic  Reports  of  the  Presi 
dent,  1949  ed.  (New  York:  Harcourt,  Brace,  1949),  p.  277. 

18Marriner  S.  Eccles,  "Inflationary  Aspects  of  Housing  Finance,"  statement 
before  the  Joint  Committee  on  the  Economic  Report,  Special  Session  of  Congress, 
November  25,  1947,  Federal  Reserve  Bulletin,  No.  33  (December  1947),  1463-5. 

19  Ibid.,  p.  1463. 

20  Public  Law  901,  80th  Congress,  approved  August  10,  1948. 

21  PHMI  Washington  News  Letter,  October  8,  1948,  p.  1. 

73 


family  dwelling  units  started  in  1946,  5%  of  the  total  in  1947,  and  3.9% 
of  the  total  in  1948. 22  But  the  fact  that  the  market  was  there  was  not 
enough— it  had  to  be  reached;  the  marketing  process  had  to  be  or 
ganized,  and  for  a  number  of  reasons  which  are  outlined  later  in  this 
chapter  this  was  perhaps  the  central  problem  of  prefabricators  in  the 
period  of  our  study. 


II.  The  Prefabricator:  A  Stage  in  Industrialization 


The  condition  of  the  industry  in  the  early  postwar  period  is  sum 
marized  in  this  section  by  grouping  the  many  different  prefabrication 
operations  according  to  the  degree  of  their  industrialization,  under 
headings  which  represent  the  major  categories  into  which  the  indus 
try  may  be  readily  divided. 


A.  The  Panelized  Wood  Frame  House 


Least  industrialized  and  most  typical  are  those  prefabrication  enter 
prises  which  have  brought  the  production  of  a  standard  wood  frame 
structure  into  a  shop  where  modular  panels  or  room-size  panels  are 
fabricated  from  lumber  studs,  sheathing  of  lumber,  plywood,  or  some 
type  of  wallboard,  and  insulation.  Exterior  and  interior  wall  sur 
face  materials  are  applied  in  either  shop  or  field  with  about  equal 
frequency.  Such  a  shop  is  equipped  with  jigs,  power  saws,  planers, 
jointers,  and  other  woodworking  machinery,  and  perhaps  some  type 
of  machine  to  simplify  nailing.  There  is  a  minimum  of  factory  work 
on  ceilings,  roofs,  and  floors,  usually  amounting  to  not  more  than 
precutting.  The  house  package  which  is  shipped  to  the  site  repre 
sents  somewhat  less  than  half  of  the  cost  of  the  finished  house,  less 
lot.  Since  the  design  of  the  structure  is  quite  conventional  (see  Fig 
ure  3),  except  for  its  panelization,  and  since  the  tools  used  are  very 
largely  the  same  ones  that  might  be  found  in  the  precutting  section  of 

22  590,000  single-family  dwelling  units  were  started  in  1946,  740,200  in  1947 
(Housing  Statistics,  Housing  and  Home  Finance  Agency  [March  1949],  p.  2), 
and  766,600  in  1948  (Bureau  of  Labor  Statistics). 

74 


2"x4"  plate 

Gypsum  board 
Interior  finish  usually 
applied  in  field 

2"x4u  studs 
Typical  spacing  16" 
on  centers 

Insulation  metal  foil 


Wood  sheathing 


Building  paper 
or  equivalent 


Wood  siding 
Exterior  finish  varies 
with  builder 

2°x4'  sill  plate 


Figure  3.    A  Typical  Wood  Frame  Panel 


a  medium  or  large  site-builder's  operation,  there  are  few  opportunities 
for  cost  reduction  through  saving  of  materials  and  greater  labor  pro 
ductivity.  The  principal  cost  reductions  come  through  working  con 
ditions  which  usually  are  more  convenient,  through  better  division 
of  labor  and  organization  of  the  work,  and  through  large-scale  pur 
chasing.  Other  potential  advantages  include  better  control  of  ma 
terials,  more  standardized  production,  better  design,  and  less  time 
and  money  devoted  to  site  work.  Such  advantages  over  on-site  con 
struction  quite  naturally  increase  as  the  prefabricated  volume  in 
creases  or  as  the  size  of  the  site-built  project  decreases.  Against 
these  advantages  must  be  charged  the  costs  of  plant  overhead,  trans 
portation,  and  marketing,  so  that  when  a  final  accounting  is  made 
we  find  these  prefabricators  offering  a  house  of  about  equal  or  perhaps 
slightly  better  quality  than  the  average  site-built  house  at  about  the 
same  price,  any  difference  in  price  depending  on  the  number  of  site- 
built  and  prefabricated  houses  in  the  projects  subject  to  comparison 
and  the  degree  to  which  the  marketing  and  manufacturing  processes 
have  been  correlated. 

While  the  designs  and  production  techniques  of  such  prefabricators 
do  not  represent  any  significant  increases  in  overall  efficiency,  they 
encounter  a  minimum  of  resistance  in  the  distribution  process.  The 
finished  house  is  generally  indistinguishable  from  the  typical  site-built 
house  in  the  lower-  and  middle-cost  brackets.  It  has  one  or  one  and 
a  half  stories,  a  pitched  roof,  clapboard  or  shingle  exterior,  walls 
of  the  customary  thickness,  and  other  conventional  features.  Conse 
quently  there  is  little  consumer  prejudice  against  it.  Furthermore, 
it  is  very  likely  to  conform  with  local  building  codes.  The  substantial 
amount  of  trade  done  with  local  materials  dealers  and  plumbing 
and  electrical  contractors  helps  to  avoid  another  source  of  resistance. 

This  is,  of  course,  a  gross  description  and  within  the  group  to  which 
it  refers  there  are  some  wide  variations  in  particular  aspects  of  design, 
production,  or  marketing.  Yet  the  characterization  applies  with  rea 
sonable  accuracy  to  at  least  half  of  the  companies  now  active.23 

23  The  figure  of  75  active  producers  was  given  as  an  estimate  by  the  Prefabri 
cated  Home  Manufacturers'  Institute  for  1948  (PHMI  News  Release,  June  4, 
1949).  It  is  very  difficult  to  determine  this  figure  accurately,  both  because 
entry  into  and  withdrawal  from  the  industry  are  relatively  easy,  and  because 
the  line  demarcating  prefabrication  from  other  manufacturing  and  building  oper 
ations  is  tenuous  at  best.  For  1949,  PMHI  estimates  indicate  85  companies  in 
business,  all  but  three  of  which  used  wood  for  their  principal  material  (PHMI 
Washington  News  Letter,  December  23,  1949,  p.  1). 

76 


B.  The  Stressed  Skin  Plywood  House 


A  greater  degree  of  industrialization  is  achieved  by  the  group  of 
prefabricators  who  produce  stressed  skin  plywood  panel  designs  (see 
Figure  4).  They  have  made  several  significant  breaks  with  conven 
tional  construction  practices.  Most  important  probably  are  the  sav 
ings  in  the  use  of  materials  made  through  efficient  design  and  precise 
engineering.  There  is  also  a  tendency  to  use  the  structural  skin  sur 
face  of  plywood  as  a  finish  material  as  well,  and  to  use  such  composite 
materials  as  paper-overlaid  plywood  and  various  types  of  wallboard. 
Other  characteristics  are  the  trend  towards  prefabricating  more  of 
the  floor,  ceiling,  and  roof  elements,  and  towards  providing  a  greater 
degree  of  prefinish  than  do  the  first  group.  The  introduction  of  cer 
tain  factory  techniques  has  resulted  in  some  important  labor  savings. 
In  the  factory  of  such  a  prefabricator,  for  instance,  we  should  expect 
to  find  many  types  of  woodworking  machinery,  jigs,  and  probably 
conveyer  lines.  We  are  apt  to  find  glue  spreaders,  some  type  of  hot 
press  for  gluing,  sanding  machines,  paint  sprayers,  and  drying  ap 
paratus. 

Unfortunately,  the  savings  in  labor  and  materials  achieved  by  these 
companies  are  countered  to  some  extent  by  the  resistance  which  is 
frequently  met  in  the  local  communities.  Buyers  may  be  unhappy 
about  the  plain  flat  finish  of  painted  plywood,  or  about  the  thin  walls, 
no  matter  how  strong  these  may  be  in  fact.  Many  of  the  prefabri 
cators  themselves  feel  that  steps  must  be  taken  to  conceal  all  joints, 
on  the  theory  that  buyers  dislike  joints  in  their  houses.  It  is  not  un 
likely  that  the  building  code  will  contain  some  provision  that  ex 
cludes,  for  instance,  the  type  of  wall  construction;  and  since  these 
prefabricators  have  tended  to  supply  more  and  more  in  their  house 
packages,  they  may  run  into  some  form  of  resistance  from  local  ma 
terials  suppliers  or  local  labor  when  they  try  to  obtain  certain  goods 
and  services  needed  to  complete  the  house.  But  while  such  obstacles 
are  very  likely  to  be  encountered  in  a  region  in  which  these  pre 
fabricators  are,  in  effect,  not  known,  as  in  New  England,  there  are 
large  areas  where  their  products  have  been  widely  accepted  by  con 
sumers,  building  inspectors,  bankers,  and  local  building-trades  people, 
notably  in  the  Midwest.  In  the  numerous  medium-size  cities  in  this 
region  the  houses  of  these  manufacturers  are  competitive  in  price 
with  the  lowest-cost  housing  being  built  and  are  apt  to  be  somewhat 
superior  in  such  qualities  of  construction  as  structural  strength  and 

77 


2x3'  framing 
members 
16*  on  centers 

Plywood 
Interior  finish 
applied  in  shop 

Insulation  batts 


Vapor  barrier 
Insulation  backing 

Male  Joint 


Female  joii 


3/s  plywood 
Exterior  finish 
applied  in  sho 


Figure  4.     A  Typical  Stressed  Skin  Panel 


workmanship.  They  have  not  yet  been  markedly  lower  in  price  and 
consequently  cannot  be  said  to  offer  a  solution  to  the  problem  of  pro 
viding  new  housing  for  families  in  the  low-income  brackets,  although 
the  industry  is  now  concentrating  on  reducing  costs  in  every  way  on 
special  low-income  models. 

There  are  perhaps  20  or  25  prefabricators  who  are  producing  stressed 
skin  plywood  houses,  and  although  this  is  but  slightly  more  than  one- 
quarter  the  number  of  firms  in  the  industry,  as  a  group  they  have 
been  producing  between  one-third  and  one-half  the  total  number  of 
prefabricated  houses  sold  in  the  last  few  years.  In  this  group  are 
many,  maybe  even  a  majority,  of  the  strongest  companies— those  who 
have  the  best  plants  and  the  most  extensive  marketing  organizations, 
and  are  potentially  most  capable  of  conducting  and  utilizing  technical 
research.24 


C.  The  Machine-Made  Metal  House 


Last  are  those  few  firms  which  represent  the  most  industrialized 
segment  of  the  field.  As  a  group,  if  indeed  they  may  be  called  a 
group,  they  are  much  less  homogeneous  than  are  the  manufacturers 
of  the  two  types  of  houses  described  above.  And  as  a  group  they 
have  produced  only  a  small  fraction  of  the  total  number  of  prefabri 
cated  houses  built  thus  far.  Although,  as  the  heading  indicates,  their 
common  characteristic  is  that  they  work  principally  with  metals,  by 
no  means  all  the  metal  house  producers  are  industrialized  enough  to 
belong  in  this  category,  and  several  of  the  largest  firms  in  it  concen 
trate  on  farm,  industrial,  and  utility  buildings  with  dwellings  as  only 
a  minor  part  of  their  business.25 

Because  it  represented  the  most  completely  industrialized  of  the 
house  manufacturers,  the  Lustron  Corporation  may  be  taken  as  an 
example  of  this  part  of  the  industry  (see  Figure  13).  Lustron  was 
long  the  subject  of  bitter  controversy,  not  only  because  of  the  sub 
stantial  role  of  the  federal  government  in  financing  it  and  helping  it 
to  obtain  materials,  but  also  because  of  its  use  of  porcelain  enameled 

24  For  example:  Crawford,  Gunnison,  Harnischfeger,  Houston  Ready-Cut,  Na 
tional  Homes,  Pease. 

25  For  instance:  Butler  Manufacturing  Company,  The  Steelcraft  Manufacturing 
Company,  Stran-Steel  (a  division  of  Great  Lakes  Steel  Corporation),  and  Fenestra 
(a  division  of  Detroit  Steel  Products  Company). 

79 


steel  for  both  interiors  and  exteriors,  and  because  it  was  by  far  the 
largest  and  most  heavily  capitalized  prefabrication  venture  to  date. 
What  made  this  enterprise  unique,  in  the  last  analysis,  was  its  scale: 
the  extent  of  its  resources  in  trained  personnel,  in  plant  and  equip 
ment,  and  in  financial  power.  If  its  projected  output  of  100  houses 
a  day,  or  30,000-40,000  a  year,  could  be  attained,  this  would  be 
several  times  the  volume  of  the  largest  peacetime  builders.  The 
Lustron  Corporation  invested  some  $15,000,000  in  the  types  of 
tools  and  equipment  that  have  long  been  employed  in  a  number 
of  mass-production  industries  but  that  have  remained  foreign  to  hous 
ing,  such  as  large  shears,  presses,  punches,  welding  machines,  and 
enameling  ovens.  The  design,  engineering,  and  sales  organizations 
were  conceived  on  a  similar  scale.  Inasmuch  as  size  (in  terms  of 
capital  resources)  has  long  been  regarded  by  many  observers  as  the 
single  characteristic  most  needed  in  a  housebuilding  enterprise  if  it 
is  to  overcome  the  inefficiencies  and  obstacles  besetting  the  many 
aspects  of  the  traditional  industry,  the  discontinuity  with  previous 
experience  which  Lustron  represented  in  the  matter  of  scale  is  of 
considerable  significance.  Many  have  come  to  regard  this  venture 
as  a  crucial  test  case  for  prefabrication,  and  its  receivership  will  be 
said  to  prove  the  folly  of  its  basic  concept.  Yet  its  value  as  a  test 
case  may  be  limited  by  the  turn  in  the  housing  market  since  plans 
were  made,  by  the  heavy  commitment  to  one  material  and  certain 
production  operations  (which  restrict  freedom  of  design  if  changes 
are  to  be  made),  and  by  the  degree  of  attention  which  has  been 
focused  on  the  RFC  loans  made  to  the  company  and  their  possible 
economic,  social,  and  political  implications. 


D.  Other  Types  of  Prefabrication 

Besides  these  larger  groups  of  prefabricators  there  are  a  few  work 
ing  with  composite  sandwich  materials  such  as  Cemesto  or  aluminum- 
surfaced  paper-plastic  honeycomb  cores  ( Southern  California  Homes ) 
(see  Figure  21),  with  sectional  house  design  (TVA  and  Reliance),  or 
with  certain  mechanized  on-site  processes,  usually  in  connection  with 
concrete  ( LeTourneau,  Ibec,  and  Vacuum  Concrete,  Inc. ) .  The  manu 
facturers  of  cabinets,  storagewalls,  doors,  windows,  stairs,  chimneys, 
and  kitchen-bath  utility  cores  also  belong  in  the  picture  of  prefabri 
cation  as  a  whole;  and  making  mention  of  them  here  will  serve  to 

80 


emphasize  the  importance  of  learning  to  think  not  how  many  pre 
fabricated  houses  are  being  built,  but  rather  how  much  of  the  "aver 
age"  house  is  prefabricated.26 


III.  Broad  Aspects  of  Prefabrication 


A.  Modular  Coordination 


Although  prefabrication  is  here  treated  primarily  as  an  industry 
rather  than  as  a  general  development,  mention  should  be  made  of 
some  of  the  lines  along  which  prefabrication  as  a  broad  movement 
is  growing.  Modular  coordination  (see  Figure  5)  is  such  a  line.  At 
first  glance,  there  may  seem  only  a  distant  relationship  between  pre 
fabrication  and  the  effort  to  coordinate  the  standard  dimensions  of 
all  building  components  so  that  they  apply  to  any  building  that  is  laid 
out  on  the  4"  modular  basis  without  cutting  or  altering  at  the  site. 
Yet  it  can  be  seen  that  if  building  materials  and  components  were 
manufactured  in  coordinated  sizes  and  with  provision  for  certain 
standardized  joints  and  constructions,  they  could  be  assembled  with 
relative  ease  and  little  waste  into  a  wide  variety  of  structures  de 
signed  along  modular  principles.  Even  more  important  in  its  long- 
range  consequences,  if  all  dimensions  of  all  buildings  were  coordi 
nated,  many  products  now  independently  dimensioned,  like  kitchen 
equipment,  could  be  made  to  fit  together,  and  many  major  assemblies 
now  rarely  mass  produced,  like  staircases,  could  be  produced  and 
marketed  in  stock  sizes  in  the  manner  of  windows  and  doors.  The 
reduction  of  site  work  and  the  increase  of  factory  work,  involving  at 
least  a  partial  shift  of  the  building  process  from  site  to  factory,  are 
the  inevitable  results  of  a  successful  program  of  modular  coordina 
tion  and  represent  a  trend  in  the  direction  of  greater  prefabrication. 
The  modular  movement  which  started  with  the  work  of  Albert  Far- 
well  Bemis  in  the  twenties  and  gained  momentum  in  the  thirties  was 
given  added  impetus  in  the  war  period  not  only  from  within  the  in- 

26  A  detailed  discussion  of  the  entire  industry  during  this  period  is  contained 
in  Part  II. 

81 


4-  4"  4-  4"  4"  4'  «•  4'  4'  4"  4'  4T  V  V  V  V  4'  V  V  V  *  V  V  V  V  *  4'  V  V  V  V  V 


FILE 


m 


FRAMING 


BLOCK 


BRICK 


WALLBOARD 


Materials  are  produced  to  fit 
multiples  of  basic  module 
and  produce  uniformity 


Non-modular  construction 
requires  cutting  of  bricks 
which  produces  material 
waste  and  high  cost 


Materials  made  in  multiples 
of  4"  reduce  cutting  and 
waste  and  can  be  fitted 
together  simply  and  orderly 


Figure  5.     The  Principles  of  Modular  Coordination 


dustry  27  but  from  the  government  as  well.28  Although  it  has  not  pro 
ceeded  as  rapidly  as  it  might  have,  because  of  the  hesitancy  of  build 
ing  products  manufacturers  to  incur  the  expense  of  changeover  in 
the  presence  of  a  seller's  market,  the  movement  is  an  inherently  self- 
accelerating  one,  and  we  may  reasonably  expect  increasingly  rapid 
progress  as  time  goes  on.  Today  there  are  more  than  600  firms  pro 
ducing  modular  structural  clay  products,  masonry,  wood  windows, 
steel  windows,  and  glass  block,  and  committees  are  currently  working 
on  the  modular  design  details  of  other  products  such  as  floors,  kitchen 
equipment,  toilet  partitions,  and  shower  stalls.29 


B.  The  Rationalization  of  On-Site  Building 

Another  effort  which  has  embraced  certain  aspects  of  prefabrica- 
tion  is  the  "industry-engineered  house"  program  sponsored  by  the 
National  Retail  Lumber  Dealers  Association  and  The  Producers'  Coun 
cil  and  directed  primarily  at  the  builder  of  fewer  than  10  houses  per 
year.  The  concept  of  modular  coordination  is  basic  to  this  program 
in  its  designs  and  use  of  materials.  Out  of  the  time  studies  and  cost 
analysis  of  the  sample  houses  built  by  the  Small  Homes  Council  of 
the  University  of  Illinois  has  come,  also,  the  conclusion  that  definite 
savings  can  be  realized  through  the  use  of  preassembled  lightweight 
roof  trusses,  making  it  possible  to  close  in  the  house  quickly  with  no 
interior  bearing  partitions  and  with  unbroken  floor  and  ceiling  finish. 
The  flooring,  heating,  plumbing,  and  electrical  jobs  can  then  be  done 

27  Project   A62,    sponsored    jointly   by   American    Standards    Association,    The 
American  Institute  of  Architects,  and  The  Producers'  Council,  Inc.,  was  begun 
in  1939.     It  has  been  carried  on  with  extensive  technical  assistance  from  the 
Modular  Service  Association,  a  non-profit  agency  supported  largely  by  the  sons 
of  Albert  Farwell  Bemis. 

28  During  the  war,  modular  coordination  methods  made  a  large  contribution 
to  the  success  of  the  defense  housing  program,  particularly  in  connection  with 
houses  on  the  design  of  which  Modular  Service  Association  worked  closely  with 
the  Homasote  Co.     The  Office  of  Technical  Services  of  the  Department  of  Com 
merce  contracted  with  the  Modular  Service  Association  in  1947  for  research  and 
development  along  these  lines.    The  Housing  Act  of  1948,  Public  Law  901,  pro 
vided  the  Housing  and  Home  Finance  Agency  with  $300,000  for  development 
and  promotion  of  standardized  building  codes  and  standardized  dimensions  for 
homebuilding  materials  and  equipment. 

29  "Modular  Coordination,"  HHFA  Technical  Bulletin,  no.  3  (March  1948), 
p.  53. 

83 


more  efficiently  because  the  interior  space  is  free  from  any  obstruc 
tions,  and  interior  partitions  can  be  framed  and  partly  finished  while 
lying  flat  on  the  floor,  and  later  tilted  up  into  position.30  These  are 
perhaps  simple  methods,  and  the  ideas  are  certainly  not  new;  yet 
they  are  instances  of  the  type  of  influence  that  the  movement  towards 
prefabrication  is  having  on  construction  practices  at  the  site.  Most 
big  operative  builders  today  not  only  do  extensive  precutting  but 
also  a  considerable  degree  of  near-site  shop  fabrication  of  components 
such  as  stairs,  plumbing  stacks,  cabinets,  storagewall  units,  and  frame 
assemblies  for  windows  and  doors.  That  some  of  these  techniques 
have  been  adopted  by  small  builders  as  well  is  only  further  testimony 
that  the  "conventional"  builder  of  today  is  by  no  means  using  the 
same  methods  that  Noah  did  on  the  Ark,  despite  inferences  to  the 
contrary  which  have  had  some  currency. 


IV.  Prefabrication:  Nature  and  Cost  of  the  Product 


To  return  now  to  the  prefabricated  house  itself,  it  has  been 
widely  said  that,  compared  with  the  lowest-priced  conventionally 
built  housing  in  the  community,  the  prefabricator  has  been  making  a 
slightly  better  product  for  about  the  same  money.  This  is  a  generali 
zation  which  is,  of  course,  subject  to  exception.  Certainly  low-quality 
prefabricated  houses  have  been  erected  in  the  last  few  years  by  the 
less  responsible  members  of  the  industry,  but  on  the  whole  careful 
control  of  materials,  factory  precision  of  measurement  and  assembly, 
and  controlled  factory  working  conditions  have  enabled  the  pre 
fabricator  to  meet,  if  not  surpass,  the  average  small-home  construc 
tion  standards.  Not  all  prefabricators  are  producing  for  the  lowest- 
price  brackets,  however;  at  least  one  has  built  houses  for  as  much  as 
$40,000  and  others  produce  in  the  $15,000-$20,000  range.  But  by  and 
large  most  prefabricators  have  been  and  are  today  reaching  for  the 
low-income  market,  which  means  for  the  prevailing  two-bedroom 
house  a  median  selling  price  of  roughly  $8,000,  completely  erected  and 

30  Research  Report  on  Construction  Methods,  Technical  Series  E2.1R,  Small 
Homes  Council,  University  of  Illinois,  in  cooperation  with  Office  of  Technical 
Services,  Department  of  Commerce,  pp.  32-3. 

84 


finished  but  not  including  the  cost  of  the  lot.31  Naturally,  in  the 
seller's  market  following  the  war,  selling  prices  for  both  prefabricated 
and  conventional  houses  tended  to  relate  more  to  what  was  offered 
than  to  costs. 

In  analyzing  costs,  however,  one  must  bear  in  mind  that  efficiencies 
of  quantity  production  can  be  realized  in  the  field  as  well  as  in  the 
factory,  and  it  can  therefore  be  quite  meaningless  to  make  a  com 
parison  between  the  cost  of  a  single  prefabricated  house  erected 
on  an  isolated  lot  and  the  cost  of  a  single  site-built  house  in  a  project 
of  a  thousand.  So  large  a  project  affords  opportunities  for  economies 
in  the  procurement  of  materials  and  in  the  work  of  grading,  installing 
utilities,  and  laying  the  foundation,  and  the  builder  is  able  to  achieve 
to  some  degree  the  same  type  of  division  of  labor  and  consequent 
specialization  that  characterize  line  production  in  a  factory.  It  is 
much  more  meaningful  to  compare  the  costs  of  conventional  and 
prefabricated  houses  where  both  have  been  built  singly,  whether  in 
small  or  in  large  groups.  For  a  one-house  project  the  prefabricated 
house  will  typically  show  some  cost  advantage,  perhaps  as  much  as 
10-20%.  As  the  size  of  the  project  increases,  the  cost  advantage  of 
the  prefabricator  is  apt  to  decrease  and  the  nature  of  the  so-called 
"conventional"  construction  process  will  change,  the  site  builder 
adopting  more  and  more  of  the  techniques  used  by  the  prefabricator 
until,  in  the  very  large  projects  of  the  operative  builder,  the  pre 
fabricator  typically  offers  no  cost  advantages.  The  most  efficient 
housebuilding  to  date  (as  measured  by  cost  per  square  foot)  has 
been  done  in  such  large  projects.  They  have  embraced  varying 
degrees  of  prefabrication,  some  builders  doing  the  work  in  their 
own  shops  near  the  site,  other  procuring  a  house  package  from  a 
prefabricator's  plant  as  far  as  300  miles  away.  The  patterns  of  these 
operative  builders  have  almost  always  been  worked  out  in  terms  of 
wood,  still  our  predominant  housebuilding  material.32 

31  Such  a  figure  is  approximate,  because  of  geographical  variations  and  differ 
ences  in  standards.     For  the  typical  "economy"  house  of  two   bedrooms  and 
768  sq.  ft.  of  floor  area,  the  median  sales  price  among  members  of  PHMI  for  the 
completed  house,  less  lot,  was  estimated  as  $7,000  in  1949  (PHMI  Washington 
News  Letter,  December  23,  1949,  p.  1). 

32  A  notable  exception  recently  was  the  Byrne  Organization,  Inc.'s  Harundale 
project  near  Baltimore   in   1946-1947,  where  welded   steel  frames   formed  the 
basis   of   a   structure  using  other  materials   such   as   plaster,    stucco,   aluminum 
clapboarding,  and  asphalt  shingles.     The  expense  of  setting  up  near-site  facilities 
to  prefabricate  structural  sections  for  these  houses  has  been  cited  as  a  major 
cause  of  the  financial  troubles  which  later  plagued  this  project.     See  The  Archi 
tectural  Forum,  90  (April  1949),  143 ff. 


V.  Prefabrication:  Current  Problems 


That  prefabrication  has  not  yet  brought  about  marked  reductions 
in  the  cost  of  housing  and  that  it  has  thus  far  accounted  for  but 
about  5%  of  postwar  house  construction  have  been  causes  for  both 
discouragement  and  disillusionment.  It  is  said  that,  in  spite  of  its 
promise,  prefabrication  has  not  offered  any  solution  to  "the  housing 
problem,"  that  it  has  utterly  failed  to  realize  its  goals.  Although 
the  goals  which  some  have  held  were  unrealistic,  it  may  still  be 
asked  why  prefabrication  has  not  been  more  successful  in  reducing 
costs  and  (to  the  extent  that  this  question  is  not  included  in  the 
preceding  one)  why  it  has  not  been  more  widely  adopted.  The 
answers  to  questions  like  these  should  be  approached  only  through 
an  understanding  of  the  problems  facing  the  prefabricator— prob 
lems  deriving  not  only  from  the  technical  and  economic  considera 
tions  inherent  in  any  comparable  industrial  process,  but  also  from 
the  complex  character  of  the  housing  field  within  which  the  in 
dustry  operates. 


A.  Locus  of  Operations 


Under  present  conditions,  with  the  majority  of  prefabricators  using 
wood  in  a  relatively  conventional  way,  the  practice  in  single-house 
projects  is  to  leave  something  like  half  the  work  (in  terms  of  both 
man-hours  and  value  added)  to  be  done  at  the  site;  in  large  projects 
the  site  work  is  a  much  larger  part  of  the  total.  Whether  because 
wood,  used  principally,  is  a  material  which  can  be  processed  with 
relative  ease  in  the  field,  or  because  prefabricated  houses  have  often 
recently  been  built  in  groups,  or  because  engineering  advances  over 
conventional  construction  have  not  usually  been  realized,  more  ex 
tensive  prefabrication  seems  simply  not  to  be  economically  justified. 


86 


B.  Marketing 


Once  the  house  has  been  designed  and  the  production  scheme 
worked  out,  there  are  two  vicious  circles  which  frequently  confront 
the  prefabricator: 

Vicious  Circle  A.  Though  the  design  is  superior  to  current  prac 
tice,  from  the  point  of  view  both  of  design  and  production,  "people 
like  what  they  know"  and  do  not  like  this  design  because  it  is  new; 
the  banks  consider  the  house  too  great  a  financial  risk  because  of 
the  public  reaction;  without  loans,  few  houses  can  be  built;  and  the 
design  remains  unknown  and  unaccepted. 

Vicious  Circle  B.  Low  volume  of  production  means  high  unit 
cost;  high  unit  cost  means  a  small  market;  a  small  market  means 
low  volume. 

These  situations  are  not  novel;  they  occur  in  many  other  fields  of 
design  and  production,  though  seldom,  if  ever,  in  so  acute  a  form. 
But  they  serve  to  place  the  necessary  emphasis  on  the  fact  that  there 
can  be  no  mass  production  without  mass  marketing.  This  was 
pointed  out  from  time  to  time  in  the  past,  and  today  it  is  a  truism.33 
Yet  in  the  frantic  rush  of  postwar  activity,  and  with  materials  short 
ages  a  major  preoccupation,  only  a  few  saw  marketing  as  a  problem 
of  any  magnitude  at  all,  let  alone  as  their  chief  one.  In  the  midst 
of  a  severe  housing  shortage  it  was  perhaps  natural  to  underesti 
mate  the  extent  of  the  selling  effort  required  and  of  the  obstacles 
which  would  be  encountered.  The  history  of  the  thirties  should 
have  provided  some  lessons  in  this  regard,  but  it  was  too  easy  to 
ignore  these  in  the  light  of  the  war  experience  and  the  other  prob 
lems  of  the  immediate  postwar  situation.  Now,  at  any  rate,  this 
has  changed,  and  the  topics  of  advertising,  sales,  dealers,  and  in 
terim  and  permanent  financing  are  of  major  concern  to  most  pre- 
fabricators. 

Most  prefabricated  houses  are  currently  marketed  through  the 
agency  of  dealer-erectors  who  combine  the  functions  of  selling  the 
house  to  the  consumer,  helping  him  to  secure  permanent  financing, 
erecting  it  at  the  site,  and,  often,  servicing  the  finished  home.  There 
are  probably  as  many  as  2,000  dealer-erectors,  some  being  small 
homebuilders  who  put  up  only  a  half-dozen  houses  a  year,  others 

33  A  case  in  point  was  the  statement  of  the  William  H.  Harman  Corporation, 
in  its  petition  in  bankruptcy,  November  29,  1948:  "We  attribute  the  company's 
failure  to  its  inability  to  overcome  the  complexities  of  distribution  and  the 
difficulties  of  financing  sales  and  erection." 

87 


being  large  builder-developers  who  work  in  terms  of  large  projects. 
The  choice  and  training  of  these  dealers  are  of  great  importance  to 
the  prefabricator,  for  they  must  be  able  to  supply  him  with  a  steady 
stream  of  orders  on  which  to  base  his  production,  and  they  must 
be  able  to  carry  out  the  erection  and  completion  of  the  house  at  the 
site  with  efficiency  and  dispatch;  otherwise  they  will  add  in  costs 
whatever  the  prefabricator  may  have  managed  to  save  in  the  shop. 
The  prefabricator  must  train  his  dealers  not  only  in  the  mechanics 
of  the  erection  process,  but  also  in  a  whole  series  of  other  marketing 
operations:  the  approach  to  homebuyers,  building  inspectors,  lend 
ing  institutions,  and  occasionally  irate  neighbors;  an  idea  of  what 
constitutes  good  site  planning,  and  some  notion  of  a  "reasonable" 
profit.  While  a  low  price  is  a  potent  factor  in  stimulating  sales  to 
dealers,  it  is  by  no  means  the  only  one  that  must  be  present.  Diffi 
culties  presented  by  codes,  building  officials,  local  materials  dealers, 
local  labor,  banks,  and  the  FHA,  plus  consumer  prejudice,  are  all 
problems  which  must  be  overcome  by  patient  effort  on  the  part  of 
the  prefabricator  and  his  dealers.  Bargain  prices  alone  do  not  solve 
them.  Furthermore,  there  is  nothing  that  requires  the  prefabricator's 
cost  savings  to  be  passed  on  to  the  ultimate  consumer.34  The  high- 
volume  incentive  of  the  manufacturer  is  not  necessarily  shared  by 
the  dealer-erectors,  many  of  whom  operate  speculatively  and  must 
work  hard  to  assemble  land,  develop  it,  and  arrange  for  the  many 
construction  operations  on  each  house.  In  a  favorable  market, 
charging  what  the  traffic  will  bear  may  look  to  them  like  the  best 
policy,  and  in  the  inflationary  situation  following  the  war  there  has 
often  been  a  tendency  for  them  to  price  the  finished  house  at  about 
the  same  level  as  conventionally  built  houses  in  the  area  even  if, 
while  still  allowing  a  "reasonable"  profit,  they  might  have  priced  it 
somewhat  lower.  Thus  it  is  possible  that  prefabrication  may  do 
better  when  the  market  enters  a  definitely  deflationary  phase,  al 
though  other  factors  then  complicate  the  situation.  Just  what  is  a 

34  The  same  is  generally  true  of  the  manufacturers  of  prefabricated  building 
components.  For  example,  the  Ingersoll  Utility  Unit,  incorporating  kitchen  and 
bathroom  equipment  and  a  central  mechanical  core,  cost,  when  installed,  about 
the  same  as  or  slightly  more  than  comparable  equipment  supplied  through  the 
usual  channels  and  assembled  at  the  site.  In  spite  of  this,  many  of  the  units 
were  sold,  partly  because  procurement  was  thus  simplified,  and  partly  because 
the  plumbing  contractors  who  installed  these  units  could  do  the  job  in  less  than 
one-third  of  the  time  it  took  by  conventional  methods  and  could  thus  turn  over 
their  capital  more  rapidly,  taking  a  larger  number  of  profits  on  their  sales. 
Nevertheless,  the  Ingersoll  Utility  Unit  Division  of  Borg- Warner  suspended  opera 
tions  on  June  30,  1949. 

88 


"reasonable  profit"  is  of  course  hard  to  say,  but  inasmuch  as  many 
dealer-erectors  are  construction  people  who  have  been  partially 
weaned  away  from  conventional  practice,  they  may  hold  ideas  that 
conflict  with  the  mass-production  concepts  of  the  prefabricator.  In 
the  long  run  the  prefabricators  will  have  to  leave  the  dealers  enough 
margin  for  profit  to  attract  the  kind  of  ability  that  is  needed  for  the 
job. 

A  few  firms  have  strong  and  well-disciplined  dealer  organizations 
which  erect  their  houses  at  a  fixed  price  schedule.  These  com 
panies  have  had  the  wisdom,  endurance,  and  resources  to  develop 
extensive  dealer  outlets  and  train  them  well.  But  sometimes  the  pre 
fabricator  has  not  developed  a  good  marketing  system,  or  he  has 
relied,  as  a  temporary  measure,  on  a  few  large  projects  to  carry  him 
along,  or  both.  At  first  glance  this  may  seem  more  economical  than 
the  investment  in  time  and  money  which  it  takes  to  establish  many 
small  dealers  whose  cumulative  efforts  supply  the  plant  with  a 
steady  stream  of  orders.  It  may  also  seem  more  economical  be 
cause  certain  efficiencies  of  scale  can  be  achieved  at  the  site.  But 
unless  large  projects  form  just  a  part  of  a  prefabricated  volume,  or 
unless  he  has,  through  an  extended  period,  established  relations  with 
a  number  of  large  project  builders  who  operate  steadily,  he  often 
finds  it  difficult  if  not  impossible  to  keep  his  plant  running  efficiently. 
The  big  projects  materialize  slowly;  when  they  do  come  through, 
the  prefabricator's  procurement,  production,  and  traffic  departments 
are  placed  under  a  strain  to  meet  high,  but  temporary,  production 
requirements;  and  after  this  there  is  apt  to  be  a  slack  period.  Such 
a  pattern  is  more  characteristic  of  a  general  contractor  than  of  a 
mass-production  enterprise,  but,  unlike  the  contractor,  the  prefabri 
cator  has  a  considerable  plant  investment  and  a  labor  force  to  worry 
about.  For  this  reason  there  is  increasing  emphasis,  especially  among 
those  firms  which  practice  a  high  degree  of  prefabrication,  on  de 
veloping  a  distribution  system  geared  to  making  many  small  sales 
rather  than  a  few  big  ones,  thus  diversifying  sales  risk  and  increas 
ing  the  prospects  for  steady-volume  operation. 


C.  Public  Acceptance 

A  special  aspect  of  the  marketing  problem  has  been  the  difficulty 
sometimes  encountered  in  securing  public  acceptance.  Occasionally 
there  is  a  real  prejudice  against  prefabrication  which  is  not  limited 

89 


to  a  generalized  opposition  to  something  new,  but  leads  to  action 
not  only  by  potential  homebuyers  themselves,  but  by  the  community 
as  well,  through  deed  restrictions,  pressure  on  building  inspectors, 
and  the  like.  It  stems  chiefly  from  dislike  of  the  minimum-standard 
prefabricated  dwellings  built  during  the  war  emergency  under  gov 
ernment  contract.  The  bad  reputation  acquired  in  this  way  persists 
in  spite  of  the  fact  that  the  vast  majority  of  prefabricated  houses 
built  since  the  war  compare  favorably  in  every  respect  with  con 
ventional  houses  in  the  same  price  class.  Moreover,  the  very  large 
number  of  prefabricated  houses  which  have  been  financed  under  the 
FHA  have  had  to  pass  tests  a  good  deal  stiffer  than  those  for  most 
conventional  houses.  As  the  public  has  become  aware  of  this  situa 
tion  its  hostility  has  lessened,  and  today  it  is  principally  the  houses 
of  unconventional  materials  such  as  steel  and  aluminum  and  those 
of  unconventional  architectural  appearance  that  are  apt  to  arouse 
suspicion  and  opposition,  although  many  communities  try  to  exclude 
prefabricated  houses  simply  because  they  are  small  and  inexpensive 
and  therefore  likely  to  give  little  aid  in  meeting  local  tax  burdens. 
In  regard  to  appearance,  there  has  been  a  strong  tendency  to  make 
the  prefabricated  house  indistinguishable  from  the  conventional  house 
and  to  abandon  flat  roofs  and  battens. 

It  is  unfortunate  that  the  general  trend  towards  public  acceptance 
is  retarded  by  occasional  poor-quality  products  which  act  to  rein 
force  latent  prejudice.  On  the  other  hand,  in  reaching  for  the  lowest- 
cost  market  prefabricators  have  to  make  compromises  with  what  the 
public  has  come  to  consider,  often  wrongly,  quality.  Many  a  pre- 
fabricator,  building  sound  houses  which  make  use  of  new  construc 
tion  methods  and  as  a  result  have  light  walls  of  thin  cross  section, 
has  found  it  desirable  to  avoid  publicity  during  the  erection  process, 
lest  the  house  be  considered  flimsy. 


D.  Building  Codes 


Building  codes  have  presented  a  serious  obstacle  to  the  growth  of 
prefabrication.  One  very  inhibitory  aspect  of  codes  is  their  diversity. 
They  are  so  numerous  and  so  non-uniform  as  to  make  it  difficult  if 
not  impossible  to  standardize  certain  items  for  mass  production  in  a 
factory.  Plumbing  codes  are  perhaps  the  outstanding  offenders  in 
this  respect  and  have  discouraged  a  good  many  prefabricators  from 
attempting  to  manufacture  plumbing  assemblies.  Another  unneces- 

90 


sarily  restrictive  aspect  of  building  codes  is  that  they  are  generally 
written  in  terms  of  specifications  rather  than  of  performance  stand 
ards,  and  that  the  specifications  are  in  many  respects  outdated. 
Some  codes  effectively  exclude  broad  categories  of  construction, 
such  as  dry  wall,  by  indirection.  Many  exclude  new  and  more  effi 
cient  structural  methods  and  materials  which,  from  a  performance 
point  of  view,  are  perfectly  adequate  but  which  fail  to  meet  the  code 
specifications:  for  instance,  code  provisions  ordinarily  require  fram 
ing  dimensions  in  excess  of  those  necessary  or  economical  in  stressed 
skin  plywood  construction.  There  are  some  even  more  restrictive 
code  clauses  such  as  those  requiring  certain  types  of  field  inspection, 
and  those  providing  for  preference  for  local  contractors  and  locally 
manufactured  materials. 

An  added  problem  arises  from  the  fact  that  even  an  up-to-date, 
state-wide,  minimum-performance  code  will  be  of  little  use  to  the 
mass  producer  if  the  local  communities  retain  the  power  freely  to 
impose  their  own  restrictions  in  excess  of  those  called  for  by  the 
state  code.  The  prefabricator,  who  wishes  a  large  market  area  for  a 
standard  product,  needs  state- wide  maximums  as  well  as  minimums; 
he  needs  protection  against  local  code  provisions  which  exceed  those 
required  in  the  public  interest.  The  code  problem  has  received  a 
lot  of  publicity  and  a  great  deal  of  serious  attention  in  the  past  few 
years.  Many  cities  and  towns  are  rewriting  their  codes;  others  are 
adding  provisions  permitting  the  testing  and  subsequent  uniform 
acceptance  of  new  materials  and  structures;  performance  standards 
are  to  some  degree  replacing  specifications.  Groups  engaged  in  work 
to  standardize  codes  include  several  building  officials  conferences, 
the  National  Bureau  of  Standards,  and  the  Housing  and  Home 
Finance  Agency.  Congress  recently  appropriated  special  funds  for 
this  purpose.35  But  such  work  moves  slowly,  and  it  will  require  a 
great  amount  of  time  and  effort  to  persuade  thousands  of  local  com 
munities  to  adopt  the  same  overall  type  of  building  regulation.  In 
the  meantime  prefabricators  are  managing,  through  the  use  of  trial 
or  experimental  houses  and  the  accumulation  of  legal  precedents,  to 
convince  towns  of  the  soundness  of  their  structures,  and  they  are 
making  progress  in  their  own  right.  Some  of  the  companies  in  the 
Midwest  producing  stressed  skin  designs  feel  that  in  their  area  of 
distribution  the  code  problem  is  no  longer  a  matter  of  major  con 
sequence. 

35  The  Housing  Act  of  1948  included  funds  for  research  in  two  fields,  modular 
coordination  and  building  codes. 

91 


E.  Local  Trade  and  Labor 


The  prefabricate!  occasionally  encounters  opposition  from  local 
materials  suppliers,  contractors,  and  labor,  who  see  their  earnings 
threatened  by  the  prefabricator  whose  package  represents  materials 
and  labor  imported  from  another  community.  This  has  led  some 
materials  dealers  to  favor  old  customers  during  periods  of  shortage 
(which  is  perhaps  only  a  natural  reaction),  to  decline  credit,  to 
insist  on  tie-in  sales,  and  to  press  for  building-code  provisions  pro 
tecting  their  interests.  Plumbing,  heating,  and  electrical  contractors 
have  at  times  declined  to  make  installations  on  equipment  not  fur 
nished  by  them  because  in  so  doing  they  lost  their  customary  markup. 
Likewise,  labor  has  from  time  to  time  refused  to  handle  prefabricated 
material,  even  when  made  by  another  local  in  the  same  brotherhood. 
These  obstacles  have  in  general  been  of  only  minor  and  sporadic 
consequence  rather  than  a  consistent  source  of  trouble,  but  they  add 
to  the  prefabricated  difficulties,  and  their  net  effect  has  been  to 
cause  him  to  eliminate  from  his  package  items  and  work  which  he 
might  otherwise  have  included,  often  at  considerable  savings. 


F.  Financing 


The  aspect  of  marketing  which  has  given  most  concern  of  late  is 
that  of  financing.  After  production  is  under  way,  the  houses  must  be 
sold  and  paid  for,  whether  the  sales  are  made  to  distributors,  to 
dealers,  or  direct  to  customers.  Excepting  in  the  case  of  the  last, 
arrangements  must  be  made  for  some  kind  of  interim  financing.  A 
house  package  is  an  expensive  item,  amounting  to  between  $3,000 
and  $4,000  in  most  cases,  and  few  prefabricators  are  well  enough 
capitalized  to  extend  credit  until  permanent  financing  has  been  ar 
ranged  on  the  house  by  a  lending  institution.  Rather  than  tie  up 
his  capital  in  this  way,  the  house  manufacturer  must  keep  it  turning 
over  in  order  to  operate  at  high  volume,  and  therefore  he  usually 
asks  the  dealer  to  pay  upon  delivery  of  the  package.  This  in  turn 
tends  to  put  a  strain  on  the  dealer  or  to  limit  his  volume,  for  he  is 
often  unable  to  obtain  the  credit  extended  to  builders  by  building 
materials  suppliers  and  must  wait  to  receive  payment  from  the  bank 
in  installments  as  the  house  progresses,  the  first  installment  not  being 
paid,  as  a  rule,  until  the  house  has  been  shelled  in.  A  further  com- 

92 


plication  is  the  fact  that  a  prefabricated  house  is  a  chattel  and  does 
not  become  real  estate  until  it  is  erected  and  attached  to  the  land. 
It  is  therefore  subject  to  different  laws  and  requires  a  somewhat  dif 
ferent  credit  instrument. 

The  acceptance  corporation  has  been  used  in  other  fields  to  meet 
this  problem,  and  at  least  one  company  has  succeeded  in  setting  up 
one  to  finance  the  sales  of  its  prefabricated  houses.36  When  a  house 
package  is  delivered  to  a  dealer,  the  acceptance  corporation  pays  the 
prefabricator  for  it  and  makes  the  first  of  several  construction  ad 
vances  to  the  dealer.  The  acceptance  corporation  subsequently  sells 
the  mortgage,  which  represents  final  or  consumer  financing,  to  a 
savings  bank  or  insurance  company.  There  has  been  considerable 
interest  in  establishing  independent  companies  to  handle  the  prob 
lems  of  a  number  of  prefabricators  in  this  way,  combining  chattel 
and  real  estate  mortgage  financing,  and  possibly  extending  the  scheme 
to  cover  such  items  as  refrigerators  and  ranges.  To  date,  however, 
no  such  independent  company  has  appeared.  The  effect  of  federal 
insurance  of  mortgages  (FHA  and  VA)  in  decreasing  the  risk  and 
increasing  the  negotiability  of  mortgages  as  earning  assets  would  be 
very  significant  in  any  such  development. 

One  other  source  of  aid  in  facing  interim  financing  problems  has 
been  the  extension  of  FHA  insurance  operations  to  cover  working 
capital  loans  to  prefabricators  and  short-term  financing  of  dealers.37 

The  last  financial  step  is  that  of  the  ultimate  buyer,  usually  in 
seeking  a  mortgage  from  a  bank.  Though  the  banks  have  presented 
no  general  obstacle,  they  have  in  some  areas  been  very  conservative 
and  very  skeptical  about  prefabrication.  Sometimes  this  conservatism 
has  made  itself  felt  in  the  difficulty  of  obtaining  working  capital 
loans;  more  often  it  has  been  exerted  in  the  field  of  mortgage  financ 
ing.  It  is  in  no  small  sense  true  that  the  prefabricator  sells  his 
house  to  the  bank  (or  other  mortgagee)  rather  than  to  the  home 
buyer.  With  present-day  mortgages  amortized  over  long  periods, 
usually  considerably  in  excess  of  the  average  span  of  homeownership, 
it  is  natural  that  lending  institutions  are  concerned  about  resale  value. 
Their  opposition  to  unconventional  appearance  affects  site-built  as 

36  National  Homes  Acceptance  Corporation,  set  up  in  1947  by  National  Homes 
Corporation  with  the  backing  of  the  American  Bank  and  Trust  Company  of 
Chicago,  and  later  operating  on  RFC  loans. 

37  Under  Section  609  of  the  National  Housing  Act,  as  amended.     Under  this 
section  commitments  have  been  made  for  the  insurance  of  loans  to  prefabricators 
with  provision  for  substitution  of  purchase  contracts  by  the  manufacturer,  making 
the  principal  amount  in  effect  a  revolving  fund. 

93 


well  as  prefabricated  houses,  but,  reflecting  local  prejudice,  they  have 
sometimes  objected  to  prefabrication  as  such,  refusing  to  lend  on  it 
or  taking  a  mortgage  for  only  a  small  fraction  of  the  value.  The 
FHA  has  had  a  very  important  influence  in  encouraging  banks  to  lend 
on  prefabricated  houses.  FHA  standards  have  long  been  recognized 
by  the  lending  institutions,  and  when  the  Washington  office  of  the 
FHA  approves  a  prefabrication  system  and  issues  an  Engineering 
Bulletin  to  that  effect,  there  is  much  more  confidence  in  these  houses 
on  the  part  of  the  lenders.  Inasmuch  as  40-50%  of  the  prefabricated 
houses  built  in  the  last  few  years  have  been  financed  under  the 
FHA,38  it  can  be  seen  how  important  the  FHA  has  been  in  the 
general  marketing  picture. 

Because  of  its  almost  decisive  importance,  a  number  of  prefabri- 
cators  have  seen  fit  to  criticize  the  FHA,  chiefly  in  circumstances 
where  they  have  had  to  make  concessions  in  design  or  have  had 
approval  flatly  refused.  It  has  been  held  that  FHA  standards  are 
too  high,  that  they  preclude  the  possibility  of  manufacturing  a  really 
low-cost  house,  and  that  house  standards  should  be  lowered  to  the 
point  where  homebuyers  could  afford  them.  This  criticism  seems 
much  less  valid  than  those  which  have  been  leveled  at  various  local 
FHA  offices  for  their  conservatism  in  matters  Of  architectural  design 
and  for  structural  requirements  held  to  be  unnecessary.  Local  offices 
have  at  times  declined  to  make  commitments  on  houses  approved  by 
the  Washington  office  because  of  disapproval  of  such  design  features 
as  flat  roofs  and  because  of  entirely  local  regulations  regarding  such 
details  as  door  widths.  In  some  instances,  different  local  regulations 
were  actually  conflicting.  This  has  led  to  suggestions  that  the 
Washington  office  issue  Bulletins  approving  the  architecture  of  a 
house  as  well  as  its  engineering,  thus  forcing  a  certain  amount  of 
conformance  by  local  offices  and  giving  the  house  a  chance  to  be 
accepted.  Recently  an  assistant  FHA  commissioner  has  been  ap 
pointed  with  the  function  of  assisting  the  prefabrication  industry  by 
efforts  to  eliminate  regional  differences  in  rulings. 

In  the  last  analysis  this  and  similar  questions  of  policy  rest  on  a 
basic  judgment  as  to  just  how  much  risk  the  FHA  should  take. 
Many  prefabricators  feel  that  the  best  long-range  likelihood  of  na 
tional  financial  stability  involves  taking  a  certain  amount  of  risk  and 
encouraging  innovations  to  speed  the  development  of  better  housing. 

38  Estimate  from  PHMI  survey  of  member  companies,  in  a  letter  to  the  Bemis 
Foundation,  December  17,  1948. 


94 


VI.  Conclusion 


In  the  widest  sense,  current  prefabrication  is  a  growing  movement 
embracing  a  whole  span  of  activities  ranging  from  modular  coordi 
nation  through  the  manufacture  of  various  building  components  to 
the  production  of  houses  themselves.39  Within  this  advancing  front 
there  is  distinguishable  a  house  manufacturing  industry  which  existed 
in  embryonic  form  through  the  thirties  and  is  now  a  struggling, 
growing  infant.  This  infant  industry  produced  more  than  100,000 
permanent  homes  in  the  three  years  following  the  end  of  the  war,40 
a  small  fraction,  perhaps,  of  the  total  amount  of  housing  built  in 
this  period,  but  a  significant  total  when  one  considers  the  investment 
it  represents.  Although  the  prefabricator  has  not  often  been  able  to 
produce  at  lower  costs  than  the  big  operative  builders  working  in 
the  great  metropolitan  areas,  he  has  clearly  demonstrated  his  ability 
to  compete  with  the  lowest-cost  housing  produced  in  the  smaller 
urban  areas  where  the  operations  of  such  large  builders  cannot  be 
continuously  sustained.  There  has  occurred  a  shaking-down  process 
in  which  the  weakest  firms  have  dropped  out  and  the  strongest  firms 
have  grown  stronger,  their  staffs  expanded,  their  patterns  of  opera 
tion  crystallized.  And  there  is  a  growing  body  of  laws  and  institu 
tions  which  are  at  least  in  part  a  manifestation  of  the  strengthening 
hand  of  the  prefabricator:  the  extension  of  FHA  operations,  the  con 
tinuing  aid  of  the  government  through  the  HHFA  and  the  RFC, 
the  enjoining  of  certain  malpractices  through  labor  legislation,  the 
movement  towards  building-code  reform,  and  the  work  of  the  Pre 
fabricated  Home  Manufacturers'  Institute  and  the  National  Associa 
tion  of  Housing  Manufacturers. 

It  has  for  some  decades  now  been  a  paradox  that  the  wealthiest, 
most  industrialized  nation  in  the  world  should  have  been  unable  to 
provide  adequate  housing  for  its  citizens.  Even  though  the  house 
building  industry  has  moved  to  cheaper  land  and  reduced  the  size  of 
its  product,  it  has  not  been  able  to  produce  for  the  lower-income 

39  "It  has  been  estimated  that  about  20  per  cent  of  the  cost  of  the  average 
small  conventionally  built  house  can  be  accounted  for  in  manufactured  products 
such  as  kitchen  cabinets,  kitchen  and  bathroom  fixtures,  heating  plant,  and  the 
like,  as  distinct  from  such  materials  as  bricks,  lumber  and  nails"  (High  Cost  of 
Housing,  Report  of  the  Joint  Committee  on  Housing  [Washington,  1948],  p.  149). 

*°  PHMI  Washington  News  Letter,  October  1,  1948,  p.  1. 

95 


groups.  Prefabricators  have  earnestly  sought  to  solve  this  problem, 
almost  always  in  terms  of  the  free-standing  single-family  house,  but 
they  have  not  yet  come  up  with  a  solution.  They  have  pushed  the 
lower  edge  of  the  housing  market  down  a  bit,  but  they  have  not  yet 
moved  it  a  significant  amount.  What  was  in  the  thirties  the  problem 
of  the  $2,500  house  is  now  that  of  the  $5,000  house;  the  problem  re 
mains  essentially  unchanged. 

One  suggested  answer  to  the  housing  problem  has  been  public 
housing.  Fearing  public  assumption  of  what  has  been  a  private 
function,  some  prefabricators  have  called  themselves  "a  bulwark 
against  socialized  housing."  But  regardless  of  political  views,  it  is 
clear  that,  to  date,  prefabricators  can  at  best  claim  for  themselves 
such  a  role  only  in  terms  of  future  potential. 


96 


6     Hodgson  houses 


7     A  precut  house  of  1920,  courtesy  The  Aladdin  Company 


_lL.  . 


•j&i 


The  Herford 


ERE  is  a  cleanly  designed,  substan 
tial  and  altogether  good-looking 
dwelling.  There  is  not  one  foot  of 

surplus  lumber  or  timber,  and  yet  the  result 
presented  is  pleasing  and  wholesome. 

The  Herford  will  accommodate  a  very  large 
family,  there  being  four  bed  rooms  and  bath 
on  the  second  floor.  And  the  living  room  and 
dining  room  are  proportioned  to  the  needs  of  a 
large  family. 

Every  feature  of  this  design  will  be  found  to 
come  under  our  plea  for  "modern,  sanitary  and 
attractive"  workmen's  homes.  And  every  feature  is 
planned  at  the  same  time  to  hold  down  the  cost 
The  Charleroi  Gas  Coal  Co.,  the  Lincoln  Gas  Coal  Co.,  and  the  Roa- 
noke  Mills  Co.  are  among  the  many  corporations  who  have  found 
housing  satisfaction  by  the  use  of  the  Herford 

The  house  requires  but  a  20x24  foot  foundation  and  will  take  but  a 
25  foot  lot.  No  expensive  embellishments  are  to  be  observed.  A 
broad  porch  with  the  simple  belt  running  around  the  middle  of  the 
sidewalls  relieve  what  might  be  extreme  plainness. 

No  lower  unit  cost  per  person  can  Ixr  secured  than  is  |x>ssible  in 
constructing  this  house. 

Price  list  attached  gives  our  cost  on  this  house. 


SPECIFICATIONS 

THE  HERFORD 
Size  20x24  Feet 


«S2r2io^«^Jt££TS 

•Mock*  for  ouuidc  walla;  Hcfeht  of  c 


.nd  pU.i.-r  tor  l.nlnc  w.lU.  «ilm«.  . 


8     Buckminster  Fuller's  first  Dymaxion  house 


9     EarZt/  General  Houses  house 


under  construction 


completed  (1933) 


1     Gunnison 


2    National 


Three 

prefabricated 
10     houses 
of  the 
1940's 


3     Crawford 
( under 
construction ) 


1 1     Two  circular  houses 


Fullers  "grain  bin"  house 


Neff  Airform  House 
(under  construction) 


i 


1     basic  package 


2     half  unfolded 


3     unfolding  roof 


4     unfolding  walls 


12     A  folding  unit  designed  for  emergency  shelter, 
the  Palace  Corporation 


5     completed  unit 


73     Lustron  houses 


two-bedroom  model,  with  garage 


three-bedroom  model 


Part     A  • 

4 


Chapter 


THE  FUTURE 

OF  PREFABRICATION 


I.  Introduction 


This  chapter  seeks  to  raise  questions  and  to  stimulate  thought 
more  than  to  attempt  prophecy.  Yet  one  general  forecast  should 
be  made  at  the  start,  because  it  underlies  much  of  the  discussion 
which  follows.  We  believe  that  it  will  become  increasingly  difficult 
to  draw  a  line  between  prefabricated  and  conventional  construction. 
At  the  present  time  one-fifth  of  the  average  house  is  made  up  of 
manufactured  products  rather  than  building  materials  in  the  ordi 
nary  sense.  In  the  future  more  significance  will  attach  to  the  degree 
of  prefabrication  than  to  the  numbers  of  prefabricated  houses. 

This  does  not  mean  that  the  house  will  become  an  exclusively  site- 
assembled  product;  development  of  the  packaged  house  and  the 
sectional  house  will  doubtless  continue.  The  new  processes  and 
procedures  which  typify  many  prefabricators  seem  sure,  however, 
to  spread  throughout  the  housing  field  and  the  construction  industry 
as  a  whole,  and  the  benefits  of  mass  production  and  mass  distribu 
tion  will  become  generally  available.  In  the  end,  the  prefabrication 
of  houses  may  well  prove  to  have  been  only  a  localized  advance,  a 
specialized  movement,  in  this  general  process  of  housing  industriali 
zation. 


II.  Current  Trends  within  the  Industry 


Although  many  of  the  broadest  problems  facing  prefabricators 
have  hardly  begun  to  be  understood,  it  is  possible  to  point  the  prob 
able  future  direction  of  trends  visible  within  the  industry  in  its  pres 
ent  form.  In  large  part,  this  discussion  is  based  upon  the  detailed 
analysis  of  the  present  industry  contained  in  Part  II;  for  that  reason, 
the  comments  made  here  may  be  very  general  in  nature;  and  also  for 
that  reason,  the  overall  order  of  that  Part  will  be  followed. 


99 


A.  Management 


It  has  by  now  become  abundantly  clear  that  every  step  of  the 
prefabricated  operations,  from  procurement  through  marketing, 
exercises  an  important  influence  upon  every  other  step.  The  process 
used  for  erection  affects  the  design  as  much  as  that  used  for  produc 
tion;  mass  sales  depend  as  much  upon  good  financing  as  upon  good 
design.  In  the  future,  therefore,  the  prefabricators  will  build  up 
balanced  staffs  of  experts,  or  will  retain  consulting  services,  in  order 
to  deal  with  this  whole  broad  range  of  problems. 

They  will  also  take  steps  to  develop  large  procurement,  produc 
tion,  and  marketing  units  in  pursuit  of  the  benefits  of  size.  In  the 
period  since  the  war,  more  than  30,000  houses  have  been  sold  each 
year,  although  the  number  of  companies  involved  has  been  sharply 
reduced;  this  is  roughly  30  times  as  many  houses  as  had  been  sold 
per  year  before  the  war.  In  the  future,  no  doubt,  there  will  remain 
small  specialized  firms  for  special  types  of  product  or  of  market,  but 
the  lion's  share  of  the  manufacturing  business  will  go  to  fewer  and 
stronger  companies.  Much  of  this  business  will  go  to  companies  not 
producing  houses  as  such  at  all,  but  rather  producing  large  compo 
nents,  either  of  houses  or  of  buildings  generally,  for  assembly  either 
at  the  site  by  individual  architects,  builders,  and  site  developers,  or 
in  fairly  localized  assembly  plants. 

At  the  same  time,  general  industrialization  of  the  building  industry 
will  be  in  progress,  a  very  noticeable  element  of  which  will  be  the 
growth  of  dimensional  coordination.  This  is  a  self -accelerating  move 
ment,  and  efforts  now  being  made  to  educate  manufacturers,  sup 
pliers,  builders,  and  architects  on  the  one  hand,  and  the  consuming 
public  on  the  other  hand,  seem  certain  to  bear  fruit. 

As  they  grow  in  size,  prefabricators  will  grow  in  responsibility  and 
in  the  desire  to  maintain  a  high  sales  volume  over  a  period  of  years. 
Long-range  plans  and  policies  and  an  understanding  of  the  whole 
housing  market  will  become  increasingly  important,  and  a  great  deal 
of  attention  will  be  paid  to  the  devices  of  combinations,  mergers,  and 
licensing  agreements.  In  the  past,  there  has  frequently  been  specu 
lation  on  the  possibility  of  the  development  of  a  sort  of  "General 
Motors"  for  the  production  of  houses.  We  have  described  in  earlier 
chapters  a  few  prior  attempts  to  set  this  up;  when  the  time  seems 
right,  it  will  be  attempted  again. 

Several  of  the  prefabricators  have  already  managed  to  integrate 
their  operations  to  some  extent— more  often  by  controlling  or  actually 

100 


owning  their  suppliers  of  basic  raw  materials  than  by  controlling 
their  marketing  operations.  In  the  future,  this  process  will  continue 
in  both  directions,  seeking  the  advantages  not  only  of  simplification 
in  management  and  reduction  in  cost,  but  also  of  the  marketing  fea 
ture  of  making  it  possible  for  the  buyer  to  turn  all  his  problems  relat 
ing  to  his  house  over  to  a  single  large  organization.  By  the  very 
nature  of  the  product  and  its  marketing  process,  however,  it  seems 
unlikely  that  there  will  ever  be  a  housing  "Detroit."  The  large  pro 
ducers  will  probably  be  enough  different,  one  from  another,  to  prefer 
different  production  areas,  and  many  advantages  may  be  found  to 
lie  in  decentralized  production. 


B.  Design 


1.  Materials 

Wood.  Since  designs  are  very  much  a  function  of  materials,  the 
future  prospects  of  the  use  of  different  basic  materials  are  of  con 
siderable  interest.  It  has  been  said  that  the  traditional  domination 
of  wood  as  a  housebuilding  material  is  being  threatened.  In  the  form 
of  lumber,  its  use  in  prefabrication  can  be  expected  to  decline. 

Plywood  and  the  related  bonded  paper  ply  materials,  on  the  other 
hand,  seem  certain  for  a  while  to  maintain  their  popularity  in  the 
prefabrication  industry  unless  there  is  a  substantial  reduction  in 
supply  and  rise  in  price.  Wood  fiber  products,  already  in  wide  use, 
will  continue  to  grow  in  popularity,  however,  and  other  products  of 
wood  technology  will  continue  their  rapid  development,  some  so  dif 
ferent  from  those  of  the  present  as  to  warrant  calling  them  plastic 
materials.  This  will  almost  certainly  be  the  direction  in  which  the 
industrial  use  of  wood  for  houses  will  turn. 

Concrete.  As  for  concrete,  already  an  important  building  material 
in  the  form  of  concrete  block,  many  recent  improvements  in  tech 
nology  will  help  to  bring  it  into  increased  use  for  houses,  but  it  can 
not  readily  be  made  the  object  of  mass  distribution.  Rather  it  will 
come  into  its  own  in  the  site  fabrication  of  huge  projects,  with  in 
creased  reliance  on  mechanized,  portable,  and  re-usable  forming, 
pouring,  and  curing  equipment. 

Clay  Products.     Structural  clay  products  have  been  less  widely 

101 


used  in  the  building  industry  because  of  their  increasing  site-con 
struction  costs  and  the  objections  on  thermal  and  acoustic  grounds  to 
their  use  as  a  single-material  wall.  They  will  undoubtedly  remain 
an  important  element  in  the  design  of  large  site  projects,  but  for  fur 
ther  industrialization  much  will  depend  upon  the  success  of  current 
research  in  improving  their  physical  properties  and  in  developing 
larger  and  lighter  units  capable  of  production  with  greater  precision. 

Metals.  The  metals  have  a  bright  future,  if  there  is  to  be  an  in 
dustrialization  of  houses  in  the  form  of  finish  as  well  as  of  conven 
tional  framing.  Steel  is  admirably  suited  to  mass  production,  and  the 
major  problems  affecting  its  use  in  houses,  condensation  and  corro 
sion,  are  approaching  satisfactory  solution.  The  increasing  produc 
tion  and  decreasing  costs  of  aluminum  and  magnesium  make  these 
light  metals  very  promising,  and  they  have  good  properties  for  hous 
ing  purposes. 

Plastics.  Plastics,  in  the  sense  of  materials  molded  under  heat  and 
pressure,  are  already  in  use  for  trim  and  accessories  about  the  house, 
but  because  of  their  relatively  high  cost  and  low  strength  they  have 
thus  far  proved  to  be  unsatisfactory  basic  building  materials.  Their 
future  lies  in  combination  as  binders  and  adhesives  with  other  mate 
rials  such  as  wood  wastes,  wood  fibers,  wood  veneers,  paper,  vege 
table  fibers,  glass  fibers,  and  the  like,  or  as  finish  coatings. 

It  is  the  development  of  plastics  along  these  lines  which  has  made 
possible  the  rapid  development  of  plywood,  and  the  plastic  core  ma 
terials  may  in  a  few  years  become  important  building  materials. 

Wallboards.  The  trend  towards  dry-wall  construction  will  con 
tinue  to  spur  the  development  of  wallboards  and  composition  boards 
of  various  types,  such  as  cement  asbestos,  fiber,  and  pulp,  especially 
when  these  are  combined  in  sandwiches  with  other  materials  offering 
different  technical  or  finish  qualities. 


2.  Large  Panels 

Related  to  the  use  of  such  new  materials  as  the  laminated  wood- 
plastic  combinations  and  the  metals  is  the  trend  towards  large  panels, 
which  avoid  seam  and  joint  problems  by  maintaining  continuity  of 
surface,  and  simplify  structure  through  a  fusion  of  skeleton  and  skin.1 

1For  a  good  discussion  of  the  principle  of  continuity,  see  Fitch,  op.  cit.,  pp. 
183-5. 

102 


In  this  connection,  there  will  be  an  increasing  effort  to  prefabricate 
those  components  of  the  house  which  offer  large,  unbroken  surfaces, 
such  as  the  ceilings,  roofs,  floors,  and  partitions,  whereas  today  the 
major  effort  is  directed  at  the  walls.  The  inherent  merit  of  frame 
and  curtain  wall  structures  for  many  purposes  and  in  many  materials 
will  assure  their  continued  development  also,  but  the  light,  continu 
ous,  combined-purpose  walls  will  advance  more  rapidly. 


3.  Factory  Finishing 

Along  with  larger  continuous  surfaces  will  come  the  development 
of  better  factory  finishing.  In  the  metals  this  trend  can  be  illustrated 
by  the  vitreous  enamel  finish  of  Lustron.  In  the  woods  it  may  take 
a  new  direction,  such  as  resin  impregnation  or  compression  or  both. 
Albert  G.  H.  Dietz  points  out 2  that  the  assembly  of  a  frame  and  the 
application  of  boarding  offer  much  less  opportunity  for  savings  in 
construction  labor  and  time  than  do  the  finishing  of  floors,  the  paint 
ing  of  woodwork,  and  the  many  other  finishing  details;  and  that 
significant  future  advances  may  come  from  the  use  of  impregnation, 
compression,  and  high-frequency  techniques  to  achieve  the  same 
purposes. 


4.  Color  and  Texture 

Of  greater  importance  to  most  people  than  is  generally  recognized 
are  questions  of  color  and  texture,  and  here  rapid  developments  seem 
sure  to  take  place.  What  the  public  considers  high  in  quality  is  often 
high  only  in  finish  quality,  and  manufacturing  processes  can  produce 
economical  finishes  of  better  performance  and  of  greater  variety  in 
color  and  texture  than  those  now  used  in  the  housing  field.  At 
present  there  is  some  experimentation  with  color,  but  the  possibilities 
of  texture  have  gone  almost  unnoticed.  It  seems  to  be  generally 
assumed  that  people  like  uniform  flat  surfaces  on  their  walls,  and 
to  be  further  assumed  by  such  companies  as  Lustron  that  they  like 
uniform  color  and  washable  finishes  as  well.  Yet  little  is  actually 
known  about  the  merits  of  different  textures  and  finishes  because  in 

2  "Progress  in  Wood  Construction,"  Wood  Preserving  News,  XXV  (December 
1947),  HOff. 

103 


the  past  relatively  few  possibilities  have  been  available  for  use  in  the 
house. 

It  should  prove  to  be  desirable  to  produce  surface  finishes  which 
do  not  require  constant  cleaning,  no  matter  how  easily  they  can  be 
cleaned.  Certainly  this  seems  to  have  been  the  conclusion  of  the 
makers  of  linoleum.  A  little  texture— a  fine  corrugation  or  processed 
pattern— together  with  an  irregular  color  pattern  might  make  it  pos 
sible  to  clean  less  often,  and  in  addition  add  improved  mechanical 
and  acoustical  performance.  Less  uniformity  should  mean  easier 
production  control,  and  corrugation  or  stamping  should  permit  the 
use  of  lighter  gauges  of  metal.  These  possibilities  are  certain  to  be 
explored  in  the  future. 


5.  New  Structural  Forms 

With  the  new  materials  and  a  higher  degree  of  factory  finishing 
will  come  new  structural  systems  and  new  plastic  forms  for  the  fin 
ished  house.  Although  in  the  mind  of  the  typical  homeowner  the 
house  may  be  essentially  rectilinear,  there  is  plenty  of  historical  prece 
dent  for  other  forms  where  the  structural  basis  is  other  than  post 
and  lintel.  At  present,  consumer  resistance  to  the  Fuller  or  Neff 
hemispherical  houses  would  be  violent  but  perhaps  less  widespread 
than  has  been  supposed.  In  one  known  instance,  the  majority  of  a 
group  of  potential  homeowners  wanted  to  examine  a  hemispherical 
house  before  making  up  their  minds,  although  they  had  summarily 
rejected  a  contemporary  rectilinear  design  in  favor  of  a  traditional 
design.  An  entirely  new  form  may  have  a  better  chance  for  accept 
ance  than  one  close  enough  to  a  traditional  stereotype  to  cause  con 
stant  irritation  because  of  its  differences. 

Revolutionary  designers  tend  to  feel  that  the  logic  of  structural 
efficiency  has  an  overwhelming  appeal.  There  seems  little  reason 
to  believe,  however,  that  we  demand  a  high  degree  of  structural 
efficiency  in  the  house.  Architectural  design  involves  many  prob 
lems;  and,  in  the  future,  basic  considerations  of  plan  will  continue  to 
dictate  the  structure,  rather  than  the  reverse. 

Indeed,  the  structure  of  the  house  is  a  mystery  to  the  average  per 
son,  and  he  rarely  even  shows  an  interest  in  it.  This  was  illustrated 
when  a  new  type  of  steel  construction  was  used  in  an  exhibition 
house  put  up  in  1933  at  the  Century  of  Progress  exposition  in  Chi 
cago.  Pleased  with  their  achievement,  the  engineers  responsible  for 

104 


the  design  put  glass  insets  in  the  walls  to  show  construction  features 
and  handed  out  questionnaires  to  find  which  aspects  of  the  house  had 
most  interested  their  visitors.  Far  above  all  else  in  terms  of  popular 
interest  was  the  presence  of  twin  beds,  and  in  second  place  by  an 
equally  commanding  margin  was  the  use  of  Venetian  blinds.  The 
construction  was  hardly  mentioned.  Clearly,  the  public  expects 
professionals  and  trained  officials  to  watch  out  for  its  interests  in 
these  matters. 


6.  Project  "Variety" 

The  industry  will  gradually  grow  away  from  the  tendency  to  seek 
"variety"  through  the  application  of  exterior  materials,  details,  and 
finish  treatments  to  identical  houses  in  the  hope  of  giving  the  ap 
pearance  of  that  random  collection  of  structures  which  has  charac 
terized  our  neighborhoods  in  the  past.  The  results  obtained  by  these 
devices  are  rarely  pleasant,  and  often  they  achieve  only  what  William 
W.  Wurster  has  called  "the  monotony  of  slight  variation."  More 
important  in  the  future  will  be  variation  in  color,  in  placement  of 
houses,  in  arrangement  of  the  lot  and  street  lines,  and  in  relation 
ships  established  with  garages  and  other  structures— a  variation  which 
obtains  its  quality  from  a  frank  recognition  of  the  basic  similarity  of 
the  houses  involved. 

It  will  be  recognized  that,  beyond  a  certain  size  (the  definition  of 
which  requires  study),  a  project  of  similar  houses  develops  an  op 
pressive  monotony  which  no  artistry  can  dispel.  Those  living  in 
such  projects  know  this,  if  the  builders  do  not,  because  the  reasons 
lie  as  much  in  the  formation  of  an  oversized  mass  of  similar  family 
groups  as  in  the  architectural  effects. 


7.  Mechanical  Cores 

The  mechanical  services  and  equipment  of  the  house  represent  from 
about  a  third  to  as  much  as  half  of  its  production  cost.  It  is  certain 
that  the  effort  to  design  these  as  a  unit  core  and  to  mass-produce  such 
units  in  ever  larger  components  will  continue.  In  the  next  few 
years  development  here  may  come  even  more  rapidly  than  in  ra 
tionalization  of  the  rest  of  the  structure.  The  difficulties  now  faced 


by  the  makers  of  mechanical  cores  are  certain  to  diminish,  for  im 
provements  along  this  line  offer  great  cost  savings,  production  and 
erection  simplifications,  and  sales  and  service  advantages.  One  can 
easily  foresee  the  development  of  a  mechanical  core  together  with  a 
basic  structural  frame  capable  of  carrying  the  weight  of  framing  and 
finishing  the  entire  roof  as  well  as  a  curtain  of  walls  and  windows; 
and  undoubtedly  there  will  be  special  models  of  cores  available  to 
provide  different  standards  of  service. 


8.  Integrated  House 

There  will  be  developing  at  the  same  time  the  integrated  house, 
manufactured  for  sale  as  a  single  unit  offering  little  or  no  design 
variation,  and  incorporating  all  its  mechanical  apparatus.  While  this 
may  seem  a  logical  extension  of  the  mechanical  core,  it  is  in  many 
respects  a  quite  different  development,  for  it  requires  that  the  entire 
house  be  dealt  with  as  a  unit,  while  mechanical  cores  may  be  used 
in  connection  with  "conventional"  buildings  or  even  existing  build 
ings,  as  well  as  with  prefabricated  houses. 


C.  Procurement 


1.  Materials 

The  obvious  procurement  problem  is  that  of  future  supplies  of 
basic  raw  materials.  For  wood  the  situation  at  present  is  very  dif 
ferent  from  that  of  a  few  decades  ago.  Our  forests  have  very  rapidly 
diminished,  and  although  wood  is  the  only  one  of  the  major  raw 
materials  of  building  which  can  be  replaced  as  a  crop,  not  enough 
concerted  effort  in  that  direction  has  yet  been  made  in  this  coun 
try.  Yet  for  wood,  and  for  plywood,  it  cannot  be  said  that  there  is 
any  immediate  prospect  of  a  shortage. 

Furthermore,  there  are  new  processes  in  operation  and  under  de 
velopment,  making  use  of  smaller  pieces  of  wood  in  edge-grain  ply 
wood  and  employing  special  surface  materials  which  permit  the  use 
of  smaller  quantities  and  poorer  grades  of  veneer.  Illustrative  of 
the  materials  made  by  these  processes  are  paper-overlaid  plywood 

106 


(resin-impregnated  paper  bonded  to  rough  plywood  to  give  a  smooth 
hard  surface),  K-veneer  (heavy  kraft  paper  bonded  to  a  single  thick 
veneer  which  has  been  slit  and  distended  before  bonding  to  increase 
dimensional  stability),  and  several  types  of  wood  core  with  bonded 
metal  surface. 

There  seem  to  be  few  procurement  problems  for  the  concretes  and 
clay  products,  and  the  story  of  the  metals  is  widely  known.  The 
supply  of  steel  is  a  matter  more  of  national  policy  than  of  the  avail 
ability  of  basic  raw  materials,  although  there  may  be  significant 
changes  in  the  production  centers  and  distribution  systems  in  the 
future  with  the  development  of  new  sources  of  ore  and  changing 
price  policies.  As  in  the  past,  any  defense  emergency  will  mean  the 
pre-emption  of  steel  supplies  for  war  purposes,  and  the  housing  in 
dustry  will  be  forced  to  use  substitutes  to  the  fullest  degree  possible. 

This  is  also  true  for  the  light  metals,  for  which  the  future  in  terms 
of  raw  materials  and  increasing  production  capacity  looks  very  bright. 
For  both  aluminum  and  magnesium,  it  is  not  the  supply  of  raw 
material  so  much  as  the  cost  of  power  which  determines  available 
supply.  Production  of  both  metals  increased  greatly  during  the  war 
and  is  likely  to  increase  again  in  the  future.  It  has  been  estimated 
that  the  aluminum  used  today  in  such  elements  as  windows,  insu 
lation,  roofing,  and  spandrels  for  the  building  industry  is  greater  in 
total  amount  than  the  prewar  production  for  all  purposes  combined.3 


2.  Components 

Where  prefabrication  amounts  to  little  more  than  the  assembly  of 
components  fabricated  by  others,  procurement  obviously  becomes 
the  heart  of  the  operation,  but  many  feel  that  one  of  the  most  im 
portant  contributions  of  even  the  typical  prefabricator  has  been  the 
streamlining  of  building  supplies  and  equipment  distribution.  This 
function  will  expand  in  the  future  as  supplies  and  equipment  manu 
facturers  satisfy  themselves  of  the  reliability  of  the  prefabricator  as 
a  source  of  large  and  steady  orders,  and  as  further  vertical  integration 
occurs  within  the  prefabrication  organizations  themselves.  Eventu 
ally,  more  and  more  prefabricators  will  strive  for  the  position  common 
in  the  automobile  industry,  in  which  the  company  is  large  enough  to 
control  its  suppliers. 

3  Howard  T.  Fisher,  "Prefabrication;  What  Does  it  Mean  to  the  Architect?" 
Journal  of  The  American  Institute  of  Architects,  X  (November  1948),  220. 

1017 


D.  Production 


1.  New  Processes 

It  is  not  possible  to  give  general  consideration  here  to  the  future 
of  industrial  techniques  in  prefabrication  industries.  Processes  which 
are  likely  to  show  an  increasing  development  in  the  next  few  years 
may  be  listed,  however.  For  wood,  they  include  gluing  instead  of 
nailing  (a  manifestation  of  the  tendency  towards  more  continuous 
surfaces),  high-frequency  induction  heating  for  the  curing  of  glues, 
and  thermopressure  molding  of  plywoods.  For  steel  and  for  the  light 
metals  it  seems  certain  that  there  will  be  more  common  use  of  fac 
tory  finishes,  such  as  vitreous  enameling  or  some  of  the  other  forms 
of  baked  finishes  at  present  used  for  automobiles.  The  cellular  and 
corrugated  core  materials  will  leap  into  prominence  with  the  devel 
opment  of  any  method  of  continuous  strip  production  of  the  cores, 
but  this  is  not  an  easy  problem. 


2.  Production  versus  Erection  Economies 

In  the  past,  a  great  deal  more  energy  in  the  design  of  the  prefabri 
cated  house  has  been  devoted  to  securing  economies  in  the  factory 
than  in  the  field,  and  often  the  result  has  been  that  unexpected  field 
costs  have  overbalanced  the  factory  savings  which  were  so  carefully 
planned.  This  will  be  discussed  in  more  detail  under  Erection 
(p.  Ill),  but  it  should  be  pointed  out  here  that  this  lesson  is  being 
learned,  and  that  production  schemes  in  the  future  will  take  into 
account  the  efficiency  of  the  operation  as  a  whole. 


3.  Standardization  versus  Specialization 

In  any  production  scheme,  attention  must  be  devoted  to  the  ques 
tion  of  standardization.  It  is  often  said  that  parts  should  be  stand 
ardized  and  made  interchangeable  to  the  fullest  degree  possible,  but 
this  depends  very  greatly  upon  the  expected  rate  of  production  and 
the  variation  in  production  models.  If  a  single  product  is  to  be  fabri- 

108 


cated  in  large  quantity,  there  may  be  savings  in  designing  specialized 
parts  for  maximum  efficiency  without  full  standardization.  To  stand 
ardize  could  be  to  make  certain  parts  unnecessarily  strong  and  thus 
wasteful  in  materials.  On  the  other  hand,  when  parts  are  standard 
ized  as  fully  as  possible,  there  may  be  greater  simplicity  in  procure 
ment,  production,  packaging,  and  erection.  The  prefabrication  or 
ganizations  of  the  future  will  be  better  able  to  determine  accurate 
costs  and  to  decide  these  production  problems  on  a  realistic  basis. 


4.  Operational  Decisions 

Production  operations  themselves  will  receive  considerable  study: 
the  breakdown  of  the  job  into  simple  and  repetitive  operations,  the 
use  of  a  continuous-flow  production  line  to  pace  production,  and  the 
use  of  jigs,  of  work-simplification  and  production-control  techniques, 
and  of  sound  accounting  procedures. 

Many  of  the  most  important  production  decisions  will  depend 
upon  the  expected  market.  Analysis  of  the  market  in  some  cases 
will  call  for  the  decision  to  stay  with  wood  construction  and  repeti 
tive  station  operation,  in  order  to  permit  considerable  variation  in 
rate  of  production  without  undue  plant  costs.  Once  the  choice  of 
steel  is  made,  however,  a  production  line  seems  indicated,  and  a 
mass -marketing  mechanism  at  a  high  level  of  stability  is  required. 
No  mechanism  has  yet  reached  this  high  level,  but  attempts  will  be 
continued  in  the  future. 

In  any  case,  it  seems  certain  that  the  prefabricators  will  be  among 
the  first  to  make  available  to  the  mass-housing  market  the  new  ma 
terials  and  methods  of  construction,  and  many  of  the  new  items  of 
special  service  and  appeal,  in  so  far  as  these  are  well  adapted  to 
factory  production  methods.4  As  other  builders  fall  in  line  with  pub 
lic  demand  for  this  development,  the  fabrication  of  an  ever-growing 
portion  of  the  house  will  be  transferred  to  the  factory,  until  eventu 
ally  the  operations  of  the  entire  housing  industry  will  become  so 
advanced  that  little  significance  will  remain  in  a  distinction  between 
the  prefabricators  and  the  other  producers  of  housing  and  building 
components. 

4  Factory  construction  itself  has  long  been  a  proving  ground  for  new  design 
ideas.  See  Fitch,  op.  cit.,  pp.  68-9. 


109 


E.  Marketing 


Throughout  this  book,  emphasis  has  been  placed  upon  the  im 
portance  to  prefabricators  of  building  sound  marketing  organizations, 
partly  because  mass  marketing  is  always  a  prerequisite  to  mass  pro 
duction,  but  largely  because  uniquely  difficult  marketing  problems 
are  presented  by  houses.  Considered  simply  as  physical  products, 
they  involve  great  difficulties  of  assembly,  packaging,  transportation, 
and,  in  most  cases,  erection,  and  the  design  and  production  processes 
are  intimately  concerned  with  the  schemes  developed  for  overcoming 
these  difficulties.  Briefly  highlighted  here  will  be  a  number  of  special 
aspects  of  this  general  problem,  to  which  prefabricators  will  give 
increased  attention  in  the  future. 


1.  Packing 

Prefabricated  houses  are  generally  transported  by  means  of  tractor- 
trailer  trucks,  the  trailer  units  sometimes  being  used  also  as  movable 
parts  of  the  assembly  line.  In  other  instances  components  are  pal 
letized  for  easy  handling,  and  in  still  others  loading  from  component 
bins  is  worked  out  as  required  by  each  order.  In  the  future,  if  the 
design  emphasizes  many  standardized  parts,  there  may  follow  a  de 
velopment  of  shipping  containers  for  these  parts  which  will  them 
selves  become  a  part  of  the  final  house;  and,  a  small  but  important 
point,  factory  packing  and  loading  will  be  designed  for  easy  off 
loading  at  the  site,  where  usually  there  will  not  be  available  the 
specialized  equipment  common  at  the  factory. 


2.  Transportation 

Generally  it  will  not  be  possible  to  transport  completed  houses, 
and  that  fact  in  itself  offers  a  possibility  for  variety  in  the  finished 
house.  Sectional  houses  made  up  in  units  of  size  suitable  for  ship 
ment  in  trailers  or  railroad  cars  may  be  varied  and  combined  in  dif 
ferent  ways  at  the  site  to  produce  houses  which  are  substantially 
different  one  from  another,  and  not  merely  slight  external  variations. 
On  the  other  hand,  collapsing  and  folding  houses  are  already  well 

110 


known  and  may  develop  rapidly  in  the  future.  Especially  when 
they  are  made  of  the  new  materials  with  large  continuous  surfaces 
and  of  lightweight  construction,  they  offer  a  very  good  solution  for 
the  problems  of  assembly,  packaging,  transporting,  off-loading,  and 
erection.  They  also  have  the  advantage  of  immediate  roofing-in  at 
the  site,  which  provides  protection  against  the  weather  and  permits 
the  prompt  departure  and  re-use  of  the  trailers.  They  do  not  ease 
the  problems  of  trailer  size,  of  road  loading  and  bulk,  or  of  access  to 
the  site,  however,  and  in  some  cases  these  will  offer  serious  difficulties. 


3.  Erection 

In  theory  one  of  the  great  savings  of  prefabrication  lies  in  simple, 
expert  erection  handled  by  trained  dealer  organizations.  In  fact,  of 
course,  such  trained  organizations  have  been  the  exception  rather 
than  the  rule  because  of  the  rapid  growth  of  the  industry  and  because 
a  new  type  of  man  is  required  in  the  dealer  role.  The  old-time  lumber 
yards  and  the  conventional  builders  in  many  cases  appear  to  be  un 
able  to  reach  full  speed  or  efficiency  in  handling  these  new  respon 
sibilities.  As  a  result,  many  a  prefabricator  is  taking  steps  to  create 
his  own  dealers  by  training  young  college  graduates  in  his  plant  and 
later  sending  them  out  in  the  field  and  financing  them  until  they  get 
on  their  own  feet.  The  establishment  of  expert  dealer  organizations 
will  take  time.  As  they  come  into  existence,  however,  they  will 
bring  about  cost  savings  very  rarely  achieved  up  to  now. 

It  should  be  added  on  the  subject  of  erection  that  the  small  stand 
ardized  parts,  or  components,  which  have  so  many  advantages  else 
where  in  a  pattern  of  operations,  tend  to  be  at  a  disadvantage  when 
it  comes  to  assembling  them  at  the  site,  often  in  positions  awkward 
for  manual  labor,  and  to  sealing  the  numerous  joints  that  necessarily 
are  involved.  The  prefabricator  of  the  future  will  be  wary  of  the  use 
of  such  parts,  particularly  if  they  require  extra  strength  or  extra  labor 
to  make  them  easier  to  handle  at  the  site.  On  the  other  hand,  the 
smaller  parts  used  in  the  erection  process,  such  as  bolts,  screws,  and 
the  like,  will  become  as  fully  interchangeable  as  possible  so  that 
time  need  not  be  wasted  finding  the  right  piece  or  trying  to  make 
the  wrong  piece  fit. 


Ill 


4.  Regional  Distributors 

At  present,  few  prefabricators  make  use  of  distributors  in  their 
distribution  channels,  but  the  likelihood  is  that  more  will  do  so  in 
the  future.  When  mass-production  quantities  reach  into  many  thou 
sands  per  year,  it  may  well  prove  more  efficient  to  divide  the  sales 
area  into  several  regions,  preferably  having  common  conditions  of 
climate  and  local  design  preference,  and  to  ship  the  houses  by  effi 
cient  railroad  or  comparable  mass  transportation  to  distribution  points 
in  these  regions.  It  will  not  make  sense  to  send  10  or  20  trucks  per 
day  over  the  same  basic  route  for  hundreds  of  miles  from  the  factory 
before  branching  off  to  the  local  destination.  Furthermore,  regional 
distributors  offer  a  partial  compromise  on  the  issue  of  factory  versus 
site  assembly.  Site  assembly  usually  means  difficult  and  inefficient 
conditions.  Factory  assembly,  on  the  other  hand,  usually  is  a  space 
and  overhead  consumer,  particularly  when  delay  in  the  sales  or  ship 
ment  process  requires  stockpiling  on  factory  floor  space.  For  a  high- 
production  factory,  if  knocked-down  packages  were  shipped  to  re 
gional  distributors  somewhat  in  advance  of  normal  sales,  these  men 
might  perform  a  minimum  of  preassembly,  and  if  orders  were  slow, 
continue  with  the  preassembly  process  as  far  as  possible  within  the 
limitations  of  the  final  means  of  transportation.  At  the  same  time, 
they  might  be  responsible  for  carrying  out  regional  variations  in  the 
basic  house,  along  certain  standardized  lines.  In  cold  climates  they 
might  install  more  wall  and  fewer  window  units,  extra  insulation, 
and  larger  heating  systems.  If  regional  construction  requirements 
varied  significantly  from  nation-wide  standards,  certain  standard  sub 
stitutions  could  be  made  at  this  point,  for  example  in  the  plumbing. 


5.  Simplified  Selling 

One  of  the  great  advantages  which  the  prefabricator  can  offer  is 
the  simplification  of  the  various  steps  through  which  the  individual 
purchaser  must  go  in  order  to  buy  a  house.  This  should  start  with 
the  establishment  of  a  fixed  price.  In  the  future,  prefabricators 
will  not  continue  to  allow  dealers  to  establish  prices  in  their  own 
locale.  The  stronger  firms  already  have  their  dealers  quoting  prices 
from  a  fixed  schedule  under  their  control,  and  those  firms  will  do 
best  in  the  leaner  days  ahead  which  can  advertise  the '  price  of  a 
house  (less  freight  and  lot)  on  a  regional  or  national  basis.  Further 

112 


than  this,  they  will  have  cut  down  to  a  minimum  the  paper  work 
and  costs  involved  in  selling,  so  that  title  search  fee,  insurance, 
amortization,  interest,  possibly  taxes,  and  even  maintenance  payments 
are  all  included  in  the  only  two  figures  which  the  homebuyer  will 
have  to  consider:  down  payment  and  monthly  payment. 

It  may  also  be  expected  that  the  dealer,  if  he  is  to  maintain  a  high 
sales  level,  will  increasingly  become  a  guarantor  of  performance  of 
the  product  and  an  expert  service  man.  One-year  guarantees  are 
already  given  in  many  cases.  This  will  become  almost  universal,  as 
will  a  high  level  of  servicing  of  all  sorts,  possibly  as  part  of  the 
purchase  price. 


6.  Simplified  Financing 

Unquestionably  the  emergence  of  well-advertised  brand-name 
houses,  in  combination  with  a  continued  or  expanded  program  of 
government  mortgage  insurance,  will  tend  to  turn  the  mortgage  into 
a  more  negotiable  form  of  earning  asset.  This  will  fit  in  with  the 
growing  tendency  for  families  to  purchase  houses  out  of  current  in 
come  rather  than  savings.  It  is  possible  that  the  trend  will  be  in  the 
direction  of  forms  of  tenure  and  home  financing  which  combine 
ownership  and  tenancy  in  some  manner,  as,  for  example,  the  pur 
chase-option  plan.  Prefabricators  may  be  the  first  to  introduce  such 
a  scheme  on  a  wide  basis. 

The  nature  of  interim  financing  (short-term  or  construction  financ 
ing)  may  be  expected  to  alter  as  the  house  is  increasingly  industrial 
ized.  A  common  future  procedure  will  be  the  combination  of  chat 
tel  and  real  estate  mortgage  financing  in  which  a  finance  company 
will  pay  the  prefabricator  for  his  package  at  the  time  of  shipment, 
advance  funds  to  the  dealer  for  site  improvement  and  erection  and 
completion  of  the  house,  and  sell  the  final  mortgage  to  portfolio 
investors.5  In  this  way  the  final  mortgage  lending  institution  does 
not  enter  the  picture  until  the  completion  and  sale  of  the  house,  and 
interim  financing  is  secured  less  and  less  by  the  house  itself  and 
more  and  more  by  the  general  assets  of  the  growing  prefabrication 
enterprise. 

5  This  scheme  was  suggested  to  PHMI  by  John  Richardson  in  1948. 


113 


7.  Sales  Cost 

Regarding  the  sales  aspects  of  marketing,  there  is  bound  to  be  a 
growing  realization  of  the  importance  of  effective  advertising  and 
sound  sales  techniques— involving  greater  expenditures  than  are  gen 
erally  allowed  for  at  the  present  time.  The  industry  has  been  re 
minded  that  it  pays  for  advertising  on  the  average  only  about  $1 
per  $7,000  house  as  compared  with  the  automobile  manufacturer's 
average  expenditure  of  about  $10-$15  per  $1,500-$2,500  automobile. 
Yet  insufficient  allowance  for  the  cost  of  selling  at  the  producer's  level 
has  been  the  admitted  cause  for  failure  of  more  than  one  promising 
company. 


8.  Sales  to  the  Government 

As  the  participation  of  government  in  housing  increases  there  will 
also  be  increasing  opportunities  for  group  sales  to  agencies  of  the 
government,  and  special  attention  will  have  to  be  paid  to  this  sort  of 
business  since  it  is  inherently  different  from  regular  private  business 
and  has  rules  of  its  own.  Among  these  is  an  old  maxim:  in  selling 
to  the  public,  sales  costs  count;  in  selling  to  the  government,  pro 
duction  costs  count. 


9.  Sales  to  Operative  Builders 

Sales  to  large  operative  builders  whose  projects  are  generally 
identified  only  with  their  own  names  may  become  an  important  part 
of  the  total  prefabrication  business,  and  a  few  companies  may  con 
tinue  to  make  this  a  basis  of  their  pattern  of  operations,  contenting 
themselves  to  carry  on  a  sort  of  anonymous  refining  stage  in  the 
housebuilding  process  and  organizing  their  plant  facilities  for  a  fluc 
tuating  volume  of  production.  Nevertheless,  such  sales  will  tend  in 
the  future  to  be  more  interesting  to  the  manufacturer  of  house  com 
ponents  than  to  the  prefabricator  of  finished  or  nearly  finished  houses. 
For  in  addition  to  causing  uneven  production,  the  large  orders  of 
operative  builders  usually  involve  little  chance  for  disclosure  of  the 
manufacturer  or  trade  name  to  the  final  purchaser,  and  great  pres 
sure  for  variation  in  the  product  in  view  of  the  size  of  the  order. 

114 


The  manufacturer  finds  it  hard  to  build  up  in  this  way  the  all-out 
mass  advertising,  sales,  and  distribution  required  for  mass  produc 
tion.  Further,  the  operative  builder,  with  little  fixed  investment  com 
pared  to  the  prefabricator,  can  remain  inactive  when  things  are  bad, 
and  return  to  compete  independently  ( as  he  has  in  the  last  few  years ) 
during  a  seller's  market.  This  indicates  a  potential  advantage  to  the 
manufacturer  of  components  which  the  manufacturer  of  trade-name 
houses  will  seek  to  overcome  by  working  with  site  developers  who 
find  value  in  his  trade  name,  by  building  up  his  own  site-develop 
ment  teams,  and,  at  the  same  time,  by  diversifying  his  sales  as  fully 
as  possible.  Such  men  feel  strongly  that,  even  from  the  point  of 
view  of  a  potential  investor,  the  surest  protection  lies  in  the  diversi 
fication  of  risk  and  in  carrying  the  advertising  and  trade-name  rela 
tionship  right  through  to  the  ultimate  purchaser,  as  has  always  been 
done  in  other  mass-production  industries. 


10.  Market  Analysis 

The  attempt  of  prefabricates  to  get  a  sound  market  analysis 
is  complicated  by  the  nature  of  the  housing  market  in  general. 
There  is  a  growing  realization  of  the  fact,  pointed  out  by  William  K. 
Wittausch,6  that  competition  between  prefabricated  and  conven 
tional  houses  is  overshadowed  by  competition  between  any  kind  of 
new  house  and  the  supply  of  existing  houses.  As  times  become  bad, 
the  owner  of  an  old  house  can  sell  it  at  less  than  the  production  price 
of  a  new  one;  and,  generally  speaking,  an  old  house  in  a  good  loca 
tion  will  sell  better  than  a  new  one  in  a  poor  location,  particularly 
if  the  new  one  is  also  very  small.  There  is  no  assurance  that  there 
will  continue  indefinitely  in  the  future  to  be  a  ready  market  for  the 
mass-produced  minimum  standard  house;  some  signs  indicate  that 
the  stable  market  in  the  future  may  be  rather  for  houses  featuring 
good  value  at  low  rather  than  minimum  cost.  The  private  indus 
trialist  will  come  to  recognize  that  the  purchaser  of  even  the  lowest- 
price  mass-produced  house  is  in  all  probability  making  the  largest 
single  purchase  of  his  lifetime,  and  he  will  not  be  tempted  solely 
because  a  house  is  in  fact  and  in  advertising  claim  a  stripped-down, 
rock-bottom  minimum. 

6  "Marketing  Prefabricated  Houses/*  Harvard  Business  Review,  XXVI  (No 
vember  1948),  696. 

115 


11.   Seasonally 

Another  aspect  of  the  housing  market  which  bears  attention  is  its 
seasonal  variation.  Many  a  prefabricator  seems  to  assume  that  this 
will  be  eliminated  when  the  production  operations  are  handled  in 
the  factory  and  the  remaining  local  work  is  efficiently  scheduled  in 
advance.  It  should  not  be  forgotten,  however,  that  seasonality  in  the 
housing  market  is  in  large  measure  a  reflection  of  seasonal  forces 
in  the  lives  of  the  families  concerned.  School  terms,  spring  clean 
ings,  June  weddings,  and  summer  vacations  will  continue  to  be  im 
portant  factors  after  production  and  erection  have  been  put  on  a 
twelve-month  basis.  Although  it  doubtless  can  be  reduced,  seasonal 
variation  may  never  be  eliminated;  in  all  probability  it  will  continue 
to  have  an  influence  on  costs  and  prices. 


12.  The  Special  Nature  of  a  House 

The  largest  marketing  problem  is  found  in  the  fact  that  houses 
are  not  mere  consumer  goods,  to  be  used  and  thrown  away  when 
they  fall  apart.  They  are  the  focus  of  the  basic  social  unit  in  our 
society  and  a  natural  locus  for  complex  social  drives  and  taboos, 
for  unreasoned  preferences  and  idiosyncrasies.  Prefabricators  are 
finding  that  it  requires  far  more  skill  to  mass-produce  and  market 
than  is  generally  recognized.  This  is  not  understood,  certainly,  by 
most  of  those  who  would  have  us  believe  that  the  housing  industry 
is  completely  out-dated  and  ridiculous.  Something  like  a  ball-point 
pen  or  a  television  set,  designed  to  satisfy  a  relatively  new,  special 
ized,  and  uncomplicated  demand,  may  be  manufactured  on  a  fairly 
logical  basis  and  sold  with  relative  simplicity;  prefabricators  deal 
with  a  real  problem  in  marketing  the  family  home. 


III.  Future  Problems  within  the  Industry 


The  major  future  problems  arising  out  of  the  industry  as  we  know 
it  today  include  few  that  are  new  or  unexpected.    Yet  their  very  sim- 

116 


plicity  and  obviousness  have  tended  to  make  them  easy  to  forget, 
and  for  that  reason  they  are  briefly  summarized  here. 


A.  Central  or  Branch  Plants 


Prefabricators  will  frequently  have  to  decide  whether  to  expand 
central  plants  or  open  branches.  For  houses  manufactured  of  rela 
tively  conventional  materials,  the  problem  may  be  solved  indirectly, 
as  a  result  of  combinations  and  integrations  which  bring  a  number 
of  separate  plants  into  one  large  procurement,  production,  and  mar 
keting  combination,  with  production  or  assembly  remaining  local 
ized.  For  the  metal  houses,  a  large  central  plant  may  be  more  logi 
cal,  although  component  parts  could  be  made  by  a  number  of  large 
manufacturing  plants  and  assembled  at  localized  assembly  plants; 
both  types  of  operation  have  been  attempted  and  so  far  the  choice 
between  them  is  not  clear.  The  temptation  to  set  up  a  large,  efficient- 
looking,  central  production  plant  will  be  strong,  and  such  a  plant 
will  have  no  small  value  as  a  device  for  giving  both  the  public  and 
financial  circles  a  tangible  spectacle  of  efficiency,  large  assets,  and 
stability.  For  houses  of  concrete  and  comparable  bulk  materials, 
there  seems  little  likelihood  of  the  development  of  centralized  pro 
duction  or  even  assembly  plants,  excepting  for  specialized  compo 
nents  or  in  areas  of  unusual  concentration  of  demand.  More  likely 
will  be  the  continued  development  of  mobile  or  portable  production 
machinery  and  equipment,  designed  to  be  set  up  at  the  site  and  to 
effect  great  economies  when  a  large  number  of  similar  units  can  be 
produced  within  a  short  radius  of  operations.  Such  equipment  is 
particularly  suited  to  the  construction  at  one  time  of  an  entirely  new 
project  or  community  under  a  single  developer. 


B.  Site  or  Factory  Fabrication 

It  is  sometimes  argued  that  good  site  fabrication  makes  prefabrica- 
tion  unnecessary,  and  certainly  site  preparation  and  fabrication  tech 
niques  will  develop  hand  in  hand  with  production  techniques  gen 
erally  and  will  help  to  effect  a  general  reduction  in  costs.  As  the 
prefabrication  plants  become  increasingly  efficient,  and  as  substan- 

117 


tial  cost  savings  in  the  house  package  become  available,  however,  it 
is  reasonable  to  believe  that  even  the  site  developers  will  find  it 
advantageous  to  purchase  many  of  their  units  from  the  prefabri- 
cators.  Site  developers  may  also  turn  to  the  prefabricators  because 
of  the  advantages  of  shifting  to  them  the  worries  about  procurement 
and  delivery  and  because  of  the  possibility  of  cutting  thereby  the 
time  and  expense  required  for  construction  and  financing.  At  the 
same  time,  as  we  have  seen  above,  the  dealers  in  prefabricated 
houses  will  become  more  interested  in  large  site  development.  The 
problem  thus  becomes  not  one  of  choice,  but  one  of  taking  fullest 
advantage  of  both  fabrication  methods. 


C.  Low  Price  or  High  Value 


Although  low-cost  houses  will  necessarily  continue  to  be  the  major 
market  for  prefabricators,  the  industry  generally  will  be  faced  with 
the  problem  of  deciding  when  the  time  has  come  to  seek  better  values, 
by  adding  space,  equipment,  or  facilities,  instead  of  lower  prices. 
For  houses  purchased  with  government  aid,  there  seems  every  reason 
to  believe  that  space  standards  will  be  moved  up  from  the  minima 
which  have  prevailed  during  the  last  few  years;  and  when  the  house 
is  privately  purchased,  owners  may  become  increasingly  conscious 
of  the  illusory  quality  of  a  bargain  purchase  which  proves  to  be 
unsatisfactory  for  normal  family  living.  Space  can  be  added  more 
easily  and  cheaply  than  many  other  features  of  a  house,  and,  as  its 
great  value  is  understood,  it  will  be  increasingly  demanded  in  the 
future.  At  the  present  time,  however,  space  in  the  house  is  very 
hard  to  merchandise. 

The  manufacturers  who  are  most  interested  in  better  values  are 
those  who  have  found  that  they  can  market  their  product  more  easily 
if  it  contains  certain  special  features  or  pieces  of  equipment  which 
on  the  normal  market  might  come  under  the  heading  of  luxuries. 
Mass-produced  as  parts  of  the  house,  such  special  features  probably 
add  little  to  the  cost  but  a  great  deal  to  the  salability.  Obviously, 
this  can  be  overdone.  The  ingenious  prefabricator  will  be  careful 
to  develop  and  include  just  what  is  necessary  to  give  his  house  a 
special  appeal  at  the  best  price  possible.  For  a  while  this  kind  of 
gadgetry  may  have  the  effect  of  reducing  the  real  quality  of  the 
house  in  the  interest  of  including  more  sales  features.  There  is  rea 
son  to  believe,  however,  that  competition  within  a  highly  indus- 

118 


trialized  housing  industry  and  the  examples  set  by  the  government 
in  its  programs  for  the  lower-income  groups,  together  with  a  growth 
in  the  store  of  general  knowledge  regarding  basic  physiological  and 
psychological  requirements,  will  counteract  that  tendency. 


D.  Evolution  or  Revolution 


Of  the  general  problems  troubling  those  interested  in  prefabrica- 
tion,  one  of  the  most  interesting  is  the  problem  of  evolution  versus 
revolution.  Evolution  is  a  normal,  familiar  process,  and  many  argue 
that  it  alone  can  succeed.  The  argument  for  revolution  may  be 
summarized  as  follows:  factory  methods  do  not  promise  a  reduction 
in  wood-processing  costs  sufficient  to  offset  the  increases  in  over 
head  expense  which  result  from  moving  the  operations  from  the 
site  to  the  factory;  therefore  there  is  little  hope  of  developing  a 
genuinely  low-cost  home  through  evolution  along  conventional  lines, 
and  hope  must  be  placed  in  revolutionary  production  techniques, 
probably  making  use  of  metal  as  a  basic  material. 

Against  this  must  be  weighed  the  difficulties  of  creating  an  entirely 
new  production  process  and  the  necessary  accompanying  marketing 
process.7  It  is  generally  easier  to  create  an  entirely  new  industrial 
operation  to  produce  new  articles,  whereas  for  the  mere  improve 
ment  of  old  articles,  the  obvious  pattern  is  a  development  of  old 
industries.  The  house-trailer  industry  in  this  country  sprang  up  to 
produce  a  new  article,  which  offered  a  service  not  fully  performed 
by  any  existing  product  (although  it  could  also  be  used  as  a  house 
when  fixed  in  place);  despite  its  very  limited  probable  market,  the 
industry  grew  up  very  rapidly,  and  recently  has  been  selling  more 
than  twice  as  many  units  as  the  prefabricated  housing  industry.8 
Perhaps  this  is  a  trend  towards  a  new  way  of  living  and  a  step  in  the 
revolutionary  process.  Where  the  attempt  has  been  made  to  set  up 
an  entirely  new  industrial  organization  to  produce  houses  in  the  past, 
money  has  always  run  short  before  competition  with  the  existing 

7  John  Ely  Burchard  has  presented  a  good  discussion  of  this  point  in  "Pre 
fabricated    Housing    and    Its    Marketing    Problems,"    The    American    Marketing 
Journal,  II  (July  1935),  150-6. 

8  In  1945  the  trailer  industry  produced  16,225  units;  in  1946  it  shipped  47,103; 
and  in  1947,  70,078;  with  a  further  increase  in  1948.     Figures  from  Facts  for 
Industry,  Series  M45A-68,  U.  S.  Department  of  Commerce  (October  11,  1948), 
Table  1. 

119 


industry  could  be  effective.  "The  sun's  rays  of  capital  have  been 
applied  often  intensely  but  never  for  long  because  no  one  could 
afford  a  sustained  effort/'9  Furthermore,  there  are  technical  diffi 
culties  to  be  overcome  in  producing  a  house  equally  suited  to  cli 
matic  conditions  in  Minnesota  and  in  California,  and  careful  design 
is  required  if  the  product  is  to  be  both  mass  produced  and  non- 
uniform.  And  those  operating  at  tremendous  scale  from  the  start 
have  little  basis  in  practical  experience  for  finding  a  realistic  com 
promise  between  a  highly  functional  product  which  might  not  sell 
well  because  it  is  unpopular  and  a  more  conventional  product  which 
might  not  show  enough  saving  in  cost. 

The  likelihood  is  that  the  natural  process  of  evolution  and  the 
earnest  attempts  at  revolution  will  both  continue  in  the  future,  and 
that  what  might  seem  in  prospect  to  be  revolutionary  will  seem  in 
retrospect  to  have  been  merely  evolutionary. 


E.  One  Model  or  Many 


Another  problem  arises  in  deciding  whether  to  produce  a  single, 
or  at  the  most  a  very  few,  standard  models  offering  the  best  plans 
possible  for  average  buyers  and  a  consequent  efficiency  in  both  pro 
duction  and  marketing,  or  to  make  a  line  of  component  parts  which 
may  be  assembled  to  suit  individual  tastes  to  a  much  greater  degree. 
There  may  also  be  intermediate  stages  between  these  extremes;  for 
example,  a  company  selling  a  line  of  many  models  which  are  as 
sembled  by  varying  the  numbers  and  arrangement  of  a  relatively  few 
standardized  partial  assemblies  or  components.  A  certain  amount 
of  variety  in  the  product  is  compatible  with  mass  production,  as  can 
be  illustrated  by  the  automobile  industry,  particularly  by  the  recent 
lines  of  automobiles  in  which  standard  component  assemblies  may  be 
interchanged  not  only  in  different  models  of  a  single  make  but  even 
in  different  makes  of  cars,  from  the  smallest  to  the  largest.  Further 
more,  we  have  seen  that  it  is  possible  within  the  requirements  of 
mass  production  to  make  allowance  for  a  certain  degree  of  regional 
difference  through  partial  assembly  by  the  distributor.  It  seems 
likely  that  the  lowest  costs  will  be  achieved  when  the  product  is 
the  most  fully  standardized— if  a  mass  market  for  so  standardized  a 
product  is  developed.  If  the  mass  market  cannot  be  fully  developed 

*Burchard,  "Prefabricated  Housing  and  Its  Marketing  Problems,"  p.  152. 

120 


for  a  highly  standardized  product,  the  line  of  models  made  up  from 
standardized  assemblies  should  prove  to  be  the  most  economical. 
Undoubtedly,  there  will  also  develop  a  substantial  market  for  simpler 
components  such  as  panels,  manufactured  for  general  distribution 
as  a  sort  of  superior  building  material  and  for  assembly  by  the  local 
builder  or  architect.  Unless  a  large  project  is  being  developed  at  one 
time,  however,  this  pattern  of  operations  will  almost  surely  lead  to 
somewhat  higher  cost  to  the  ultimate  consumer  in  return  for  in 
creased  individuality.  Finally,  even  those  who  prefer  and  can  afford 
to  have  their  houses  built  individually  for  them  will  take  increasing 
advantage  of  the  availability  of  manufactured  assemblies  and  com 
ponents. 


F.  Optimum  Level  of  Standardization 

The  previous  question  tends  to  become  one  of  the  optimum  level 
of  standardization:  whether  at  the  4"  building  material  module,  the 
modular  panel,  the  three-dimensional  section,  or  the  completed  house. 
Undoubtedly  all  will  be  under  development  at  the  same  time,  and 
ultimately  all  may  be  the  basis  for  a  true  mass  production.  The 
4"  module  can  be  assumed  to  be  already  well  on  the  way  towards 
this  goal,  and  it  might  be  argued  in  any  case  that  differences  in  the 
character  and  purpose  of  its  development  rule  it  out  of  this  discus 
sion.  These  are  differences,  however,  only  in  degree. 


G.  Duplication  by  the  Conventional  Builder 

Overriding  all  these  problems,  from  the  point  of  view  of  the  pre- 
fabricator  as  we  now  know  him,  is  the  problem  of  the  ease  of  dupli 
cation  and  the  adoption  of  his  new  techniques  by  the  conventional 
builder.  The  conventional  builder  has  been  criticized  by  many  as 
old  fashioned  and  unlikely  to  compete  along  the  paths  of  industriali 
zation.  Actually,  as  we  have  seen,  many  industrial  techniques  are 
already  turned  to  his  use  as  well  as  to  that  of  the  prefabricator. 
Aluminum  siding  and  roofing  are  widely  marketed.  Even  the  highly 
industrialized  vitreous  enamel  finish  can  be  purchased  for  home  use 
from  manufacturers.  Such  vitreous  enamel  sheets  are  thin  enough 

121 


to  have  many  of  the  characteristics  of  wallpaper.  It  is  this  quick 
utilization  by  others  of  his  developments  which  illustrates  that  the 
prefabricator  may  serve  primarily  as  an  agency  for  the  first  substan 
tial  penetration  into  the  building  industry  of  modern  mass-production 
theories. 


IV.  Larger  Housing  Issues 


Lord  Kelvin  has  said  that  one  measurement  is  worth  a  thousand 
questions.  In  the  prefabrication  field,  as  in  many  others,  this  is  not 
always  true.  With  relation  to  some  of  the  most  important  forces 
bearing  upon  the  future  of  housing,  even  the  basic  theories  have 
hardly  been  developed.  For  those  dealing  with  such  forces,  one 
question  may  be  worth  a  thousand  measurements.  It  is  the  purpose 
of  this  section  to  raise  some  of  these  questions.  These  are  often 
easy  questions  to  ask;  unfortunately,  for  most  of  them  there  is  little 
indication  of  a  satisfactory  answer. 


A.  The  House  Itself 


1.  Shrinkage 

The  house  in  which  the  average  family  lives  has  been  undergoing 
a  steady  change  in  character  in  recent  years.  More  and  more  of 
the  functions  which  used  to  be  performed  within  its  walls  have  been 
transferred  elsewhere,  while  in  some  degree  there  has  been  a  replace 
ment  by  functions  not  previously  considered  part  of  the  house.  Thus 
food  preservation  and  preparation  require  a  very  small  portion  of 
the  time,  energy,  and  space  formerly  devoted  to  such  activities.  The 
recent  introduction  of  the  home  freezer  and  of  other  specialized 
kitchen  equipment  represents  not  so  much  a  reversal  of  this  trend 
as  the  provision  of  new  types  of  conveniences.  Rooms  for  formal 
entertaining  and  space  for  making  and  washing  clothes  have  been 

722 


curtailed  sharply,  and,  here  again,  the  recent  growth  in  popularity 
of  home  entertainment  devices  and  sewing  and  washing  machinery 
takes  the  form  of  an  added  service  for  those  to  whom  the  commercial 
facilities  were  unsatisfactory.  Space  needed  for  heating  equipment 
and  fuel  has  been  sharply  reduced;  servant  quarters  are  fast  disap 
pearing;  and  rooms  themselves  are  becoming  smaller.  All  this  has 
been  reflected  in  a  contraction  in  the  size  of  the  "average"  house 
over  the  course  of  the  last  few  decades. 

In  the  future,  to  what  degree  will  this  shrinkage  continue?  Are 
there  practical  limits  to  the  reduction  of  meal-preparation  and  eating 
space,  or  will  there  be  a  further  contraction,  possibly  with  the  devel 
opment  of  precooked  and  fresh-frozen  full-course  meals,  specialized 
catering  services,  and  the  like?  Will  families  go  out  for  more  and 
more  of  their  entertainment,  using  the  automobile  to  get  them  to 
commercial  and  community  recreation  centers,  or  will  the  radio  and 
television  bring  them  increasingly  back  into  the  home?  Large  formal 
occasions  tend  already  to  be  celebrated  out  of  the  home  in  rented 
quarters.  Will  this  be  true  for  smaller  occasions  also,  as  better  social 
rooms  become  available  on  a  neighborhood  basis? 

This  list  of  questions  could  be  expanded,  but  it  is  enough  to  illus 
trate  the  point:  an  increasing  reliance  on  the  community  means  not 
only  a  shrinkage  in  the  size  of  the  house,  but  also  an  increasing 
community  influence  upon  the  family  enjoyment  of  the  house.  The 
successful  prefabricator  will  be  prepared  not  only  to  modify  his 
product,  but  also  to  pay  increasing  attention  in  selling,  locating,  and 
erecting  his  houses  to  the  character  of  services  now  being  performed 
by  the  community. 


2.  Mechanical  Independence 

Will  there  be  an  increasing  trend  towards  mechanical  independ 
ence?  We  know  that,  although  families  are  steadily  moving  into 
the  large  metropolitan  areas  in  this  country,  within  these  areas  they 
are  moving  rapidly  out  from  the  centers  to  the  suburbs.  This  subur 
ban  movement  has  been  speeded  by  the  automobile  and  by  the 
availability  of  electric  power,  and  a  boost  was  given  by  such  me 
chanical  appliances  as  the  washing  machine  and  the  home  freezer. 
Will  there  be  a  further  development  along  these  lines  with  further 
decentralization,  or  will  peacetime  living  bring  a  return  to  the  pre 
war  inclination  to  purchase  services  from  specialized  and  centralized 

123 


organizations?  For  example,  if  it  were  possible  to  have  electric 
power  as  cheaply  from  a  home  generator  as  from  public  service  com 
panies,  would  the  average  family  wish  to  have  this  added  independ 
ence?  An  efficient  and  economical  chemical  toilet,  with  or  without 
the  re-use  of  the  water,  could  make  significant  changes  in  the  con 
struction  of  the  house  and  even  in  the  structure  of  the  sewer-bound 
society  in  which  we  live. 

For  the  average  person  an  increased  provision  of  home  machinery 
and  equipment  might  be  attractive,  but  it  would  substantially  in 
crease  the  first  cost  of  the  house,  and  this  the  average  family  cannot 
stand.  Although  in  some  respects  it  is  not  in  the  best  interests  of 
those  concerned,  the  trend  towards  designing  for  low  initial  cost  will 
very  likely  continue,  even  in  the  face  of  higher  maintenance  and 
service  expenses.  This  trend  may  be  reversed  principally  in  the 
construction  of  mass  housing,  whether  supported  by  government  or 
built  as  an  equity  investment;  in  either  case  there  are  clear  advan 
tages  in  paying  a  high  first  cost  which  will  be  more  than  balanced  by 
long-range  efficiency. 


3.  Flexibility 

From  another  point  of  view,  it  is  important  to  know  the  degree 
to  which  the  house  must  be  made  flexible— to  permit  changes  in 
size  and  arrangement  with  the  changes  in  the  composition  and  char 
acter  of  the  family  living  in  it.  Many  a  prefabricator  has  been  per 
suaded  of  the  need  for  such  flexibility,  and,  because  his  construction 
system  offers  easy  demountability,  this  tends  to  be  made  a  selling 
point.  A  large  segment  of  the  public,  certainly,  has  expressed  the 
desire  to  add  bedrooms,  shift  plans,  and  generally  have  an  "expansible 
house."  Yet,  it  is  fair  to  ask,  to  what  degree  is  this  desire  real  and 
to  what  degree  imaginary?  How  many  average  householders  have 
carried  out  extensive  remodeling  of  their  houses  in  recent  years? 
How  many  more  would  have  done  so  were  it  inexpensive  and  easy 
to  do  so?  The  frequency  of  family  moving  in  this  country  may  be 
enough  to  take  care  of  such  adjustments.  Family  pattern  is  partly 
a  matter  of  size  and  facilities  within  the  house  and  partly  one  of 
location  in  a  general  sense  (urban,  suburban,  or  rural— to  obtain  cer 
tain  definite  benefits,  real  or  imagined),  of  a  desire  for  gain  in  social 
status,  and  of  a  complex  of  other  factors.  If  there  is  no  trend  to- 

124 


wards  a  fixed  location  for  the  family,  there  may  be  no  particular 
need  for  great  flexibility  in  the  house. 

Where  it  can  be  easily  provided,  however,  as  by  movable  parti 
tions,  little  is  lost  in  terms  of  cost  and  much  is  gained  in  sales  appeal 
by  providing  flexibility.  Further,  if  stable  communities  should  de 
velop  having  a  good  cross  section  of  types  and  sizes  of  families  and 
serving  them  well  enough  to  reduce  the  urge  to  move,  then  there 
might  well  be  advantages  for  the  prefabricator  offering  flexibility 
in  the  form  of  standardized  building  components  for  individual 
assembly  and  easy  reassembly  according  to  need.10  On  the  other 
hand,  several  prefabricators  propose  to  offer  frequent  new  and  im 
proved  models  and  to  persuade  the  homeowner  to  trade  in  his  pres 
ent  house  for  the  latest  model.  This  would  offer  another  sort  of 
flexibility,  if  it  were  easy  to  detach  houses  from  the  land  and  trade 
them  about  like  chattels,  or  if  land  planning  trends  and  social  devel 
opments  in  the  future  should  make  it  less  of  a  problem  of  adjust 
ment  for  a  family  to  find  a  new  location  for  each  new  house.  If 
models  were  traded  in  only  at  the  time  of  major  family  changes 
or  moves,  of  course,  the  problem  would  tend  to  take  care  of  itself, 
since  these  changes  often  are  accompanied  by  changes  in  location 
preference  within  the  community.  For  example,  young  married 
couples  like  to  live  in  central  locations,  while  parents  of  small  chil 
dren  prefer  open  development,  freedom  from  traffic,  and  suburban 
informality. 


4.  Single-Family  or  Multifamily  Units 

Another  important  question  is  this:  will  the  mass-produced  units 
of  the  future  be  single-family  or  multifamily  houses?  It  is  often 
claimed  that  multifamily  homes  can  be  offered  at  slightly  less  cost, 
and  that,  with  the  benefits  of  the  best  of  modern  design,  they  offer 
certain  advantages  to  the  family.  In  fact,  when  it  comes  to  very 

10  Suppose  a  family,  growing  through  the  years,  has  reached  the  stage  of 
adding  a  "Cadillac  grade"'  mechanical  core  and  a  great  deal  of  living  space 
enclosed  by  standardized  wall  panels.  Then,  when  the  daughter  marries  and 
moves  away,  it  becomes  possible  quite  literally  to  break  up  the  old  home,  giving 
her  the  old  "Ford  grade"  core  and  enough  panels  for  a  small  house  in  which 
to  begin  married  life.  This  kind  of  speculation  tends  to  minimize  the  prob 
lems  of  foundations,  gardens,  and  land  use  in  general,  but  it  has  a  certain  fasci 
nation,  nevertheless. 

125 


small  units  occupying  narrow  lots  of  land,  many  feel  that  multifamily 
units  are  definitely  superior,  offering  better  space  with  increased 
privacy.  High  apartments  also  have  their  strong  advocates.  Yet 
the  prefabrication  industry  has  attempted  very  little  as  yet  along 
multifamily  lines.  This  situation  will  be  altered  in  the  near  future, 
no  doubt;  construction  systems  will  increasingly  be  made  adaptable 
to  multifamily  structures;  and  for  the  high  fireproof  structures,  special 
systems  will  be  worked  out  to  take  advantage  of  components  adapted 
also  to  simpler  construction.  These  developments  will  be  accom 
panied,  and  greatly  abetted,  by  two  other  developments:  the  growth 
of  modular  coordination  and  the  increase  of  low-cost  project-type 
housing  built  by  public  agencies,  by  large  developers  aided  by  the 
government,  and  by  equity  investors  such  as  the  large  insurance 
companies. 


5.  Durability 

What  is  the  optimum  durability  of  the  house?  Prefabricated  houses 
have  in  the  past  suffered  from  a  popular  belief  that  they  were  "tem 
porary"  houses,  when  the  fact  is  that  the  industry  might  better  won 
der  whether  it  has  not  been  building  too  well.  Two  arguments  are 
often  put  forward  in  favor  of  decreasing  the  length  of  life  of  the 
average  house.  The  first  is  that  long  life  means  rigidity,  whereas 
family  requirements  change,  land  use  patterns  change,  and  our  whole 
way  of  life  changes;  in  short  everything  changes  except  the  house 
in  which  life  is  supposed  to  take  place,  and  that  is  altered  only  by 
the  addition  of  mechanical  equipment  and  conveniences  and  by 
minor  adjustments  in  the  details.  The  second  argument  is  that  if 
houses  were  less  durable,  more  would  have  to  be  replaced  each 
year;  the  building  industry  would  have  a  larger  constant  core  of 
replacement  building;  larger-volume  production  would  in  turn  lead 
to  more  efficient  production;  and  fluctuations  in  building  activity 
would  be  less  extreme.  The  first  argument  can  be  answered  in  part 
by  flexibility  and  good  planning,  and  the  second  may  be  challenged 
on  the  basis  of  cost  and  practicality.  Can  the  nation  afford  to 
replace  housing  on  the  basis  of  a  life  span  of  definite  and  rather  short 
length?  The  advocates  of  greater  replacement  might  ask  whether 
it  can  afford  not  to  do  so.  However,  the  building  of  a  house  calcu 
lated  to  last  an  exact  number  of  years  is  no  mean  feat,  and  experience 
with  temporary  structures  in  the  past  has  shown  that  the  life  of  a 

126 


house  depends  more  on  maintenance  standards  than  on  construction 
standards.    Enforced  replacement  is  hardly  an  immediate  prospect. 


6.  Obsolescence 

To  this  must  be  added  another  question,  that  of  obsolescence. 
Whether  we  like  it  or  not,  the  fact  is  that  most  of  our  large-production 
industries  depend  in  part  upon  a  rapid  rate  of  obsolescence.  This 
may  be  natural  for  some  products,  but  it  is  largely  artificial  when  it 
comes  to  radios  or  automobiles.  Actual  or  pretended  improvement 
in  performance  leads  to  a  demand  for  the  new  product  while  the 
usefulness  of  the  old  one  continues  largely  unimpaired.  Something 
of  this  sort  is  very  likely  to  appear  in  the  prefabrication  industry  in 
the  future,  and  it  may  have  an  important  bearing  on  the  question 
of  durability  as  well.  Would  one  build  an  automobile  to  last  60 
years  if  constant  or  significant  technical  improvements  were  antici 
pated?  But  obsolescence  will  not  become  a  major  force  unless  there 
is  also  developed  a  second-hand  market.  A  house  goes  into  use 
only  after  it  has  become  a  piece  of  real  estate,  attached  to  a  certain 
piece  of  land.  A  second-hand  market  in  house  packages  would  re 
quire  that  dealers  become  real  estate  operators  on  a  large  scale  in 
order  to  put  the  houses  quickly  into  use,  and  that  land  use  and  home- 
owning  customs  undergo  a  sort  of  revolution.  This  is  not  impos 
sible,  of  course,  but  it  does  not  seem  likely  to  come  to  pass  in  the 
near  future,  at  least  in  anything  like  this  form.  It  seems  far  more 
likely  that  any  second-hand  market  which  develops  will  follow  the 
lines  of  the  traditional  real  estate  market,11  and  that  there  will  be 
little  selling  of  used  houses  without  lots  for  some  time  to  come. 
The  costs  of  moving  houses  and  making  and  breaking  utility  con 
nections  are  too  great,  although  we  have  seen  that  new  developments 
may  one  day  take  care  of  even  such  problems  as  these. 

11  It  may  be  noted  in  this  connection  that  the  new  president  of  Gunnison  Homes, 
Inc.,  is  a  man  with  vast  experience  in  handling  real  estate. 


727 


B.  The  Community 


1.  General  Problems 

In  addition  to  an  understanding  of  the  changing  character  of  the 
house  itself,  the  prefabricator  must  have  an  appreciation  of  the  extent 
to  which  it  is  dependent  on  external  factors  for  satisfactory  perform 
ance.  Two  quotations  from  experts  will  serve  to  give  an  indication 
of  the  factors  involved.  William  J.  Levitt,  the  well-known  Long 
Island  builder,  points  out: 

There  is  no  such  thing  as  a  complete,  factory-engineered  house— because  no 
one  has  discovered  how  to  prefabricate  the  land,  how  to  prefabricate  the 
road  in  front  of  the  land  or  the  water  main  that  goes  into  the  house.12 

Russell  W.  Davenport,  moderator  of  the  Life  Round  Table  on 
Housing,  concludes  that  most  of  the  trouble  with  prefabrication  lies 
in  the  nature  of  the  product  itself. 

A  house,  in  short,  is  not  merely  a  mechanical  product;  it  is  not  even 
merely  a  physical  or  material  product— though  even  on  this  plane  stand 
ardization  and  mass  production  are  difficult.  A  house  transcends  the  physi 
cal  and  transcends  the  tangible  to  become  part  of  its  surrounding  civiliza 
tion.  It  is  a  civic  or  social  product;  and  for  those  who  live  in  it  it  has  a 
spiritual  significance.  These  elementary  facts  must  constantly  be  borne 
in  mind  if  our  efforts  to  house  ourselves  better  are  not  to  meet  with  dis 
aster.13 

Many  aspects  of  his  market  are  beyond  the  control  of  the  prefabri 
cator,  no  matter  how  large  he  may  be,  and  can  be  influenced  only 
by  public  understanding  and  action— for  example,  a  boom  in  specula 
tive  land  prices,  a  series  of  municipal  "protective  regulations"  which 
in  effect  require  excessive  development  costs,  or  a  blight  of  excessive 
land  subdivision  and  clouded  land  titles.  The  prefabricator  should, 
however,  make  his  plans  and  conduct  his  operations  with  an  intel 
ligent  regard  for  these  broad  problems. 

™Life,  26  (January  31,  1949),  74. 
«  Ibid.,  78. 


128 


2.  Future  Demand 

One  important  element  of  his  plans  is  the  estimation  of  housing 
demand  in  the  future.  This  is  the  most  complex  sort  of  problem, 
involving  as  it  does  everything  from  consumer  tastes  to  government 
policies,  and  yet  market-analysis  techniques  and  data  are  woefully 
inadequate.  Important  considerations  are  the  supply  of  existing 
houses  and  the  measures  provided  for  the  demolition  of  those  houses 
which  are  obsolete.  The  industrialist  may  argue  that  disposal  of  the 
obsolete  will  follow  naturally  from  an  abundant  production  of  the 
new.  If  the  obsolete  drops  sufficiently  in  price,  however,  and  is 
usable,  can  the  new  reach  abundant  production?  How  does  this 
take  account,  moreover,  of  the  investment  in  developed  land,  utili 
ties,  and  community  services?  How  long  can  we  afford  to  concen 
trate  new  development  on  the  outskirts  of  our  cities  and  let  blight 
move  in  behind?  These  may  be  the  problems  of  the  city  planner 
and  the  investor  in  real  estate,  but  they  are  also  the  problems  of  any 
mass  producer  of  houses. 


3.  Competition  from  Existing  Houses 

The  housing  market  displays  the  characteristic  of  rapid  obsoles 
cence  at  the  top  and  very  slow  obsolescence  at  the  bottom.  When 
houses  have  become  actually  unsuited  to  human  habitation,  energetic 
exercise  of  the  police  power  will  suffice  to  tear  them  down.  Above 
this  level,  however,  they  remain  a  problem  and  a  source  of  competi 
tion  for  any  type  of  new  housing.  As  a  result,  the  prefabricator  may 
decide  to  operate  at  higher  price  levels,  counting  on  producing  new 
models  attractive  enough  to  entice  former  purchasers  to  trade  in  their 
old  houses.  In  this  way  the  old  houses  are  to  be  started  on  the 
"filtering  down"  process  by  which  low-price  housing  becomes  avail 
able  at  second,  third,  or  fourth  hand  to  those  who  cannot  afford  to 
purchase  new  houses.  In  the  automobile  field,  this  process  works, 
and  one  can  purchase  a  car  for  $200  whicn  is  far  better  than  a  new 
one  built  to  sell  at  that  price.  In  the  past,  however,  the  houses 
which  have  filtered  down  in  this  way  have  been  too  few  and  too 
poorly  adapted  to  the  need  of  those  in  the  lower-income  brackets. 
Much  will  depend  in  the  future  upon  reaching  a  low  price  level  for 
new  houses,  so  that  they  may  have  a  broad  market  from  the  start. 
Otherwise,  prefabricators  hoping  to  serve  the  whole  range  of  hous- 

129 


ing  needs  will  have  to  trade  purchasers  out  of  their  new  houses  at 
an  impossibly  high  rate  in  order  to  start  secondhand  houses  down 
the  line  in  sufficiently  high  volume.  Large-volume  production  might 
thus  require  such  a  combination  of  low  price  and  high  sales  appeal 
that  the  old  house  will  be  traded  in  as  often  as  every  10  years;  other 
wise  the  prefabricator  may  become  the  victim  of  the  housebuilding 
cycle  as  it  has  operated  in  the  past. 


4.  Problems  of  Turnover 

There  are  many  difficulties  in  obtaining  a  rapid  turnover  of  this 
sort.  One  is  the  likelihood  that  the  new  features  upon  which  the 
manufacturer  must  rely  for  sales  appeal  will  tend  to  be  mechanical 
equipment  and  gadgetry  which  may  relatively  easily  be  purchased 
and  installed  in  the  old  house,  the  shell  of  which  is  likely  to  dete 
riorate  at  a  slow  rate  by  comparison  with  its  equipment  if  the  level 
of  maintenance  is  good.  Another  is  the  fact,  which  cannot  too  often 
be  mentioned,  that  houses  are  attached  to  the  land.  Unless  houses 
can  be  made  demountable  and  sold  through  secondhand  dealers  like 
automobiles,14  the  purchase  of  each  new  house  means  moving  to  a 
new  site,  and  usually  a  new  neighborhood.  What  does  this  imply 
for  the  stability  of  communities,  for  the  interest  of  people  in  the 
local  governments  and  schools,  and  for  those— especially  children— 
who  find  adjustment  to  new  social  circles  a  personal  strain?  What 
happens,  as  a  practical  matter,  to  the  well-kept  lawn  and  the  garden? 
If  we  avoid  providing  for  expansibility  or  demountability  because  we 
expect  our  current  high  degree  of  family  mobility  to  be  maintained, 
then  we  must  provide  correctives  for  the  problems  which  such 
mobility  creates. 


5.  Community  Planning 

Broad  problems  facing  the  prefabricator  often  stem  from  problems 
of  community  planning.  The  rapid  development  of  a  large  outlying 
tract  with  hundreds  of  similar  small  houses  and  insufficient  com 
munity  services  and  amenities,  which  appears  to  be  the  most  eco- 

14  For  an  examination  of  this  idea,  see  Neal  MacGeihan,  "The  Myth  of  the 
Low  Cost  House,"  Prefabricated  Homes,  January-February  1945. 

130 


nomical  manner  of  providing  houses  in  terms  of  first  cost,  may  in  the 
long  run  so  prejudice  the  housing  market  that  the  effects  will  be  felt 
by  the  prefabricator  himself.  He  must  seriously  consider  whether 
this  sort  of  entirely  unofficial  zoning  into  a  one-class,  one-income, 
undifferentiated  community  may  not  be  contrary  to  his  own  selfish 
interests  because  of  the  dissatisfaction  of  those  living  in  such  a  com 
munity—almost  certain  to  be  carried  over  to  the  house  itself.  At 
present,  few  have  had  to  worry  about  these  problems,  because  few 
have  attempted  mass  production  on  such  a  scale  and  with  such  equip 
ment  and  plant  that  profitable  operation  over  a  period  of  years  is 
required  if  the  investment  is  to  pay  off.  In  the  future,  unless  the 
large  producers  consider  such  matters  as  they  grow  in  stature  and 
importance,  public  opinion  may  compel  the  local  government  to  take 
steps  to  control  them,  and  they  run  the  risk  of  becoming  in  effect 
large  public  utility  companies.  Through  intelligent  planning,  volume 
of  sales  can  be  maintained  at  a  high  level  without  injury  to  the 
community  from  which  the  houses  derive  so  much  of  their  essen 
tial  character  and  quality.15 


C.  Broad  Economic  and  Policy  Problems 


Much  that  might  come  under  this  heading  has  already  been 
touched  upon,  but  there  remain  two  aspects  of  the  relationship  of 
the  government  to  prefabrication  which  deserve  consideration  here. 
Already  committed  to  a  public  housing  program  and  to  a  program 
of  mortgage  insurance  which  leaves  the  building  of  many  small  houses 
a  matter  of  private  enterprise  in  name  only,  the  government  is  taking 
an  increasing  interest  in  the  general  field  of  middle-income  housing, 
the  field  of  greatest  interest  to  prefabrication. 


1.  Government  Aid 

Government  aid  is  not  peculiar  to  housing;  it  has  been  widely 
used  in  many  fields  in  the  past.  The  automobile  industry,  our  prime 

15  It  should  be  noted  that  increasing  attention  is  being  paid  to  these  matters 
of  neighborhood  planning.  The  checklist  for  veterans  in  For  the  Home-Buying 
Veteran,  issued  jointly  by  the  several  federal  housing  agencies  in  1949,  makes 
the  character  of  the  neighborhood  and  the  character  of  the  lot  the  very  first  two 
matters  of  concern. 

131 


example  of  mass  production,  could  hardly  have  developed  without 
a  tremendous  subsidy  in  the  form  of  public  roads.16  The  day  may 
come  when  the  government  will  adopt  the  often-suggested  policy 
of  establishing  a  figure  below  which  the  production  of  housing  would 
not  be  allowed  to  fall;  under  such  a  policy,  if  the  necessary  houses 
were  not  produced  by  private  means,  the  government  would  take 
over  at  once.  The  importance  of  such  policies,  and  of  the  govern 
ment  guarantee  of  decent  housing,  will  become  increasingly  large 
factors  in  the  future  as  the  prefabricators  grow  in  size  and  in  volume 
of  production.  Self-interest  alone  should  induce  the  leaders  in  the 
field  to  take  a  constructive  part  in  the  formulation  of  broad  plans  and 
to  cooperate  with  the  government  in  setting  up  that  stable  market 
situation  which  is  necessary  for  profitable  operations. 


2.  National  Capitalism 

One  aspect  of  government  housing  policies  which  secures  a  great 
deal  of  attention  in  business  and  industrial  circles  is  the  emergence 
of  what  has  been  called  national  capitalism.  In  the  past,  the  hous 
ing  industry  has  been  considered  a  bulwark  of  private  capitalism, 
but  there  can  be  no  doubt  that  this  is  being  altered.  The  problem 
is,  To  what  extent?  Of  particular  interest  in  this  connection  was 
Lustron,  organized  to  produce  houses  at  a  scale  never  before  real 
ized,  and  financed  initially  with  $840,000  private  equity  capital  on 
the  one  hand  and  a  $15,500,000  loan  from  the  RFC  on  the  other. 
With  no  further  increase  in  private  equity  capital,  the  public  loan 
later  more  than  doubled,  and  requests  were  submitted  for  increases 
to  as  much  as  $50,000,000.  With  a  ratio  of  better  than  forty  to  one 
of  debt  to  equity,  this  leverage  seemed  so  great  that  it  was  said  that 
for  all  practical  purposes  the  government  had  gone  into  the  hous 
ing  business. 

Many  private  businessmen  were  concerned;  they  believed  that  Lus 
tron  had  received  "favorite  son"  treatment.  Either  the  government 
plans  deliberately  to  take  over  the  housing  industry,  or  it  will  eventu 
ally  take  it  over  whether  it  plans  to  or  not,  they  argued.  Who  would 
dare  to  raise  the  risk  capital  and  create  the  facilities  necessary  to 
compete  with  Lustron  on  an  entirely  private  basis?  The  government 

16  It  has  been  suggested  that  this  theory  be  carried  over  into  the  housing 
field,  and  that  the  government  frankly  subsidize  housing  by  the  purchase  and 
free  grant  of  house  sites,  retaining  thereby  the  control  of  development. 

132 


would  surely  continue  its  favored  treatment  in  order  to  protect  a 
investment.  With  private  capital  thus  frightened  out  of  the  housing 
industry,  the  government  would  move  inevitably  towards  national 
capitalism.  Claiming  to  favor  free  enterprise,  but  becoming  increas 
ingly  addicted  to  close  regulation  and  control,  the  government  might 
continue  to  solicit  private  capital,  but  would  certainly  put  up  public 
capital  if  none  were  forthcoming.17  And  eventually  the  same 
mechanism  would  be  turned  to  other  fields,  said  the  worried  spokes 
men  of  business. 

On  the  other  hand,  there  can  be  little  doubt  that  many  who  had 
approved  governmental  support  of  Lustron  were  quite  free  of  such 
motives.  Prefabrication  is  a  young  industry,  and  we  have  seen  that 
financing  on  a  tremendous  scale  is  often  required  for  the  mass  pro 
duction  and  distribution  of  houses.  The  risk  is  so  great  and  the  pros 
pects  of  profit  so  dim  in  comparison  with  other  investment  oppor 
tunities  that  only  the  government,  acting  in  the  broad  interests  of  the 
public,  can  be  expected  to  give  such  an  industrial  approach  a  real 
test.  When  the  way  had  been  shown,  supporters  expected  private 
corporations  to  move  in  quickly  and  set  up  competitive  enterprises, 
and  meanwhile  Lustron  should  itself  have  repaid  the  RFC  and  be 
come  a  private  industry  in  the  normal  sense.  Certainly  one  can 
sympathize  with  the  desire  to  give  any  likely  method  of  increasing 
production  and  reducing  costs  a  fair  chance  to  prove  itself.  If 
operations  should  prove  extremely  profitable,  why  would  large  com 
panies  avoid  the  field?  They  have  had  to  deal  with  the  government 
before. 

17  In  his  testimony  of  August  5,  1949,  submitted  to  the  House  of  Representa 
tives  Banking  and  Currency  Committee,  Harry  H.  Steidle,  Manager  of  the  Pre 
fabricated  Home  Manufacturers'  Institute,  had  this  to  say:  "We  are  therefore 
strongly  opposed  to  legislation  that  would  definitely  favor  any  one  of  several 
companies  that  are  heavily  indebted  to  the  Government  to  the  disadvantage  of 
those  companies  which  are  in  part  paying  the  bill  through  taxes.  .  .  .  This  pat 
tern  of  destruction  to  privately  financed  producers  of  prefabricated  homes  shows 
itself  in  numerous  ways,  some  of  which  are  as  follows:  (a)  in  the  compulsion 
to  extend  further  loans  in  hope  of  working  out  of  an  already  bad  situation;  (b) 
by  the  practical  effect  of  extending  free  rent  from  the  War  Assets  Administra 
tion;  (c)  through  intercession  before  other  governmental  agencies  for  the 
allocation  of  steel  or  other  aids  not  available  to  privately  financed  companies;  (d) 
through  authorization  of  a  large  sales  and  public  relations  staff  paid  out  of 
Government  loans;  (e)  by  approval  of  a  national  advertising  campaign  paid  for 
out  of  Government  loans;  (f)  through  pressures  of  varying  degrees  exerted  on 
Government  buying  agencies  to  purchase  the  houses  made  by  the  indebted  com 
pany."  The  legislation  in  question,  which  would  have  authorized  RFC  market 
ing  loans  to  companies  already  holding  RFC  loans,  was  defeated. 

133 


It  is  too  soon  to  know  what  the  eventual  result  of  the  intervention 
of  the  government  will  be.  The  fully  equipped  Lustron  plant  has  great 
potential  value  as  a  producer  of  houses,  of  bathtubs  and  sanitary  ware, 
and  of  light  structures  in  general.  It  contains  probably  the  world's 
largest  ceramic  line.  Dismembered  and  sold  at  auction,  it  would  bring 
the  RFC  only  a  few  cents  on  the  dollar.  Yet  the  political  interest 
which  has  been  aroused  makes  it  unattractive  to  private  investors,  and 
competitors  are  standing  in  the  wings,  fears  of  national  capitalism 
notwithstanding.  United  States  Steel  Corporation  owns  a  control 
ling  interest  in  Gunnison  Homes,  and  its  Ambridge  research  labora 
tories  are  at  work  on  housing  problems.  Republic  Steel  Corporation, 
through  its  Truscon  division,  already  supplies  a  great  variety  of  com 
ponents  to  the  housing  industry.  The  aluminum  companies  have 
nearly  all  come  out  with  lines  of  building  materials.  All  could  move 
in  fast  and  make  a  good  fight  for  the  business.  Some  undoubtedly 
prefer  to  avoid  making  houses  as  such  and,  by  manufacturing  a  line  of 
highly  developed  components,  plan  to  take  over  most  of  the  business 
without  direct  competition. 

As  a  sidelight  on  this  question,  it  should  be  pointed  out  that  many 
public  housers  seemed  to  dislike  Lustron  with  an  intensity  approach 
ing  that  felt  by  these  businessmen.  Conscious  of  limited  objectives 
and  unintelligent  actions  on  the  part  of  private  builders  in  the  past, 
they  were  inclined  to  dismiss  as  technocratic  pipedreams  all  efforts 
to  reduce  the  capital  costs  and  to  increase  the  supply  of  housing  by 
processes  of  industrialization.  While  it  is  true  that  there  has  been 
some  justification  for  a  healthy  concern,  it  seems  illogical  to  be  sus 
picious  of  any  approach  to  an  increased  supply  of  better  housing 
which  does  not  involve  public  agencies  and  project  developments. 
Between  the  suspicions  of  housers  that  Lustron  was  a  mere  attempt 
to  discredit  the  public  housing  program  through  a  cynical  mass- 
production  mythology  and  the  suspicions  of  the  businessmen  that  it 
was  the  first  step  in  socializing  the  industry,  the  company  had  plenty  of 
intangible  difficulties  to  add  to  its  normal  production  problems. 

A  final  note  on  these  relationships:  few  business  suspicions  re 
garding  the  future  seem  to  attach  to  the  work  of  such  government 
agencies  as  the  FHA  and  the  VA,  through  the  combined  resources 
of  which  it  is  possible  for  private  builders  to  put  up  houses  without 
the  investment  of  any  private  equity  risk  capital  whatsoever.  Here 
the  initiative  remains  in  the  hands  of  the  local  builder,  it  is  true,  and 
the  financing  is  worked  out  in  local  circles,  so  that  the  process  ap 
pears  to  be  more  conventional.  But  at  the  first  major  break  in  prices 
and  employment,  the  government  will  take  over  a  large  share  of  our 

134 


housing  supply.    Clearly,  the  government  program  needs  to  be  con 
sidered  as  a  whole. 


V.  Conclusion 


A  number  of  questions  have  been  raised  in  this  chapter,  but  the 
problems  extend  beyond  any  single  set  of  questions.  Above  all  it 
should  be  clear  that  the  prefabrication  industry  faces  problems  of 
very  great  variety,  many  of  them  far  more  complex  than  is  generally 
recognized.  To  analyze  these  problems  and  to  work  out  the  means 
of  finding  significant  answers  is  the  job  of  research,  and  no  one  can 
doubt  that  a  great  deal  of  research  is  needed.  By  and  large,  the 
technical  questions,  while  easier  to  answer,  tend  to  seem  almost  un 
important  by  comparison  with  broad  questions  of  economics  and 
sociology.  And  yet  even  technical  questions  often  require  great  skill 
and  patience.  For  research  is  always  a  long  process— in  building 
especially  so— and  it  is  even  longer  before  practical  application  takes 
place. 

Those  familiar  with  the  state  of  knowledge  and  research  at  any 
time  can  make  fairly  accurate  predictions  regarding  the  develop 
ments  likely  to  occur  over  the  next  period  of  years,  subject  only  to 
accelerations  and  decelerations  resulting  from  such  factors  as  wars 
and  depressions.  Everyone  is  aware  of  the  detail  in  which  such 
imaginative  writers  as  Jules  Verne  and  H.  G.  Wells  were  often  able 
to  forecast  events  which  have  since  transpired.  Ordinarily,  there  is  a 
substantial  time  lag  between  the  day  when  knowledge  justifies  a 
prediction  and  the  day  when  the  prediction  comes  true.  The  exist 
ence  of  this  time  lag  makes  it  possible  in  normal  times  to  foretell 
whether  or  not  magical  industrial  advances  are  likely  to  take  place 
in  a  given  field  in  the  next  few  years;  there  is  little  in  the  current 
state  of  building  knowledge  and  research  which  suggests  that  any 
such  advances  may  soon  be  expected.  It  is  largely  this  belief  that 
we  were  in  a  period  of  comparative  calm  which  served  to  justify 
us  in  exploring  in  so  great  detail  the  existing  state  of  the  industry. 

For  such  new  ideas  as  may  now  have  reached  the  stage  of  clear 
anticipation,  there  remain  long  periods  of  development  to  be  under- 

135 


taken,  first  in  the  laboratory,  and  later  at  pilot  plants.  Such  is  the 
skill  of  modern  engineering,  however,  that  this  process  could  be 
carried  out  easily,  provided  enough  money  and  energy  were  put 
behind  the  development.  Yet,  with  technical  development  com 
pleted,  the  new  idea  must  buck  other  forces  which  oppose  the  in 
troduction  of  any  innovation— the  so-called  barriers  to  technological 
advance  which  have  frequently  been  described.18  For  even  the 
simplest  ideas,  therefore,  a  widespread  application  may  be  long 
delayed. 

Most  of  the  ideas  in  prefabrication,  furthermore,  are  not  simple. 
They  involve  questions  many  of  which  could  be  answered  compara 
tively  easily  if  they  could  be  put  in  direct,  technical  form;  the 
trouble  is  that  in  this  field  few  questions  can  be  put  in  that  form. 
To  illustrate  this  point,  take  the  question  of  corrosion.  Prefabricators 
with  corrosion  problems  may  draw  on  scientific  facts  which  have 
been  well  established  for  years,  but  they  are  more  concerned  with 
satisfactory  performance  at  low  cost  than  with  scientific  advances. 
The  basic  research  in  corrosion  is  therefore  primarily  conducted  in 
laboratories  little  concerned  with  the  problems  of  housing. 

This  illustration  might  be  multiplied,  but  it  will  suffice  to  point 
up  the  fact  that  little  scientific  satisfaction  is  available  in  the  field 
of  housing,  where  every  problem  is  confused  by  considerations  of 
economics,  sociology,  physiology,  and  psychology.  The  result  is 
that,  in  the  universities  and  elsewhere,  research  men  have  preferred 
less  complex  and  more  satisfying  problems. 

During  the  war  it  was  possible  to  attract  to  government  war 
research  a  great  number  of  the  best  scientific  minds  in  the  country, 
despite  the  fact  that  their  work,  with  very  few  exceptions,  was  not 
scientific  research  at  all,  but  rather  the  accelerated  development,  for 
war  purposes,  of  scientific  knowledge  derived  from  research  done 
as  much  as  two  generations  earlier.  Unquestionably  there  is  an 
emergency  in  housing  today,  but  the  ^ense  of  urgency  and  of  over 
all  organization  along  lines  of  clear  and  definite  policy  has  been 
missing.  Such  research  as  is  being  done  frequently  represents  a 
search  for  suitable  compromises  limited  by  the  special  interests  of 
sponsors,  by  lack  of  resources,  and  by  the  absence  of  programs  broad 
enough  to  challenge  assumptions  and  seek  far  afield  for  determin 
ing  forces. 

is  See,  for  instance,  Bernhard  J.  Stern,  "Resistances  to  the  Adoption  of 
Technological  Innovations,"  Technological  Trends  and  National  Policy,  National 
Resources  Committee  (June  1937),  pp.  39-66. 

136 


We  have  pointed  out  that  when  an  entirely  new  product  is  devel 
oped  a  new  industry  will  often  be  created.  But  houses  are  not  new 
products,  and  they  cannot  quickly  be  "rationalized."  Men  may  select 
a  radio  with  a  relatively  dispassionate  logic,  but  emotions  and  tra 
ditions  tend  to  dominate  in  the  choice  of  a  house.  Obviously,  care 
ful  sociological  research  is  needed  even  to  identify  the  main  drives 
operating  in  this  field,  and  much  more  research  will  be  needed  before 
we  know  how  to  direct  these  drives,  or  to  what  ends.  At  the  present 
time,  the  beginnings  of  sociological  studies  in  housing  have  been 
made.  Of  especial  interest  are  recent  studies  made  by  the  Research 
Center  for  Group  Dynamics,  of  the  University  of  Michigan,19  and  by 
Robert  K.  Merton  at  Columbia.20  The  work  has  barely  been  begun, 
however. 

Far  more  is  involved  than  the  tabulation  of  preferences  regarding 
the  size  and  arrangement  of  rooms.  It  may  one  day  be  shown,  for 
instance,  that  satisfaction  with  a  house  depends  less  on  the  character 
of  the  house  itself  than  on  the  social  relationships  formed  by  the 
family.  The  market  may  grow  in  the  future  for  well-planned  projects 
of  small  houses  balanced  by  good  neighborhood  facilities.  Even 
such  broad  considerations  as  full  employment  and  increased  leisure 
will  have  their  influence  on  the  product  and  on  the  industry. 

Lacking  basic  and  fundamental  facts  in  all  these  situations,  we 
may  seek  empirical  data  on  which  to  base  decisions  in  the  imme 
diate  future  through  a  careful  analysis  of  the  activities  of  such  pro 
ducers  as  Lustron,  such  builders  as  Levitt  and  Sons,  and  such  gov 
ernment  activities  as  those  of  the  FHA  and  the  FPHA.  In  the  past, 
following  a  national  tradition  of  never  looking  back,  we  have  been 
guilty  of  shocking  waste  through  our  failure  to  profit  from  the  great 
experiments  and  projects  we  have  built.  We  can  no  longer  afford 
such  extravagance. 

H.  G  .Wells  pointed  out  that  the  rapid  rise  of  the  Germans  in  na 
tional  strength  and  importance  in  the  nineteenth  century  could  be 
attributed  in  large  part  to  their  discovery  that  knowledge  was  a  crop 
like  any  other,  to  be  increased  in  quality  and  in  yield  by  cultivation 
and  by  the  intelligent  use  of  fertilizers.  This  lesson  the  recent  war 

19  Their  original  work  in  this  field,  sponsored  by  the  Bemis  Foundation,  is  de 
scribed  in  the  book  by  Leon  Festinger,  Stanley  Schachter,  and  Kurt  Back,  Social 
Pressures  in  Informal  Groups:  A  Study  of  Human  Factors  in  Housing  (New  York: 
Harper,  1950). 

20  Reference  to  many  other  studies  may  be  found  in  "Selected  References  on 
Family  Living  Requirements  and  Public  Acceptance  Factors  Relating  to  Hous 
ing  Design,"  HHFA  Technical  Bulletin,  no.  4  (April  1947). 

137 


has  finally  brought  home  to  us  in  this  country;  let  us  apply  it  in  the 
field  of  housing. 

One  may  ask  who  should  do  the  research  work:  private  companies, 
industrial  associations,  educational  institutions,  professional  societies, 
or  government  agencies?  Obviously,  the  answer  is:  all  of  these,  in  a 
coordinated  effort. 

All  now  are  needed,  and  the  way  seems  open  at  last  for  all  to  take 
part.  Private  producers  are  becoming  large  enough  to  devote  serious 
efforts  to  research;  industrial  associations  are  growing  in  importance; 
educational  institutions  have  increasingly  entered  the  field;  profes 
sional  societies  have  taken  initiative  indirectly  and  directly  in  the 
stimulation  of  new  research,  as  typified  by  the  formation  in  the  Na 
tional  Research  Council  of  the  Building  Research  Advisory  Board; 
and  the  government  is  now  provided  with  legislative  authority  for 
a  large-scale  program  of  research  in  the  HHFA. 

The  importance  of  prefabrication  in  helping  to  stimulate  this  re 
search  effort  lies  in  the  fact  that,  because  of  the  problems  inherent 
in  adopting  and  executing  a  suitable  pattern  of  operations  covering 
every  step  from  the  procurement  of  raw  materials  to  the  servicing  of 
the  final  houses,  it  has  brought  sharply  into  focus  the  needs  for  re 
search,  the  possibilities  and  difficulties  of  industrialization,  and  the 
special  complications  of  the  production  aspects  of  the  housing  prob 
lem.  To  return  to  the  thought  expressed  in  the  introduction  of  this 
chapter,  it  may  well  prove  in  the  end  that  prefabrication  has  been 
only  a  local  and  specialized  advance  within  a  broad  process  of  in 
dustrialization,  and  that  in  the  future  there  will  be  little  point  in 
trying  to  decide  whether  or  not  a  housing  process  can  properly  be 
called  prefabrication.  The  prefabrication  industry  has  served,  how 
ever,  as  an  almost  ideal  framework  in  which  to  study  the  overall 
problems  of  housing. 


118 


Part     A  A  • 

5 


Chapter 


INTRODUCTION 


This  part  of  the  book  is  devoted  to  a  detailed  and,  as  nearly  as  pos 
sible,  factual  and  objective  analysis  of  130  of  the  prefabricators  whose 
production  facilities  were  visited  and  representatives  of  whose  man 
agement  were  interviewed  during  the  course  of  an  extended  field 
survey.1 

No  one  survey  could  give  the  definitive  story  of  prefabrication  as 
a  whole;  yet  it  has  been  possible  to  describe  in  some  detail  the 
activities  of  a  large  and  entirely  representative  portion  of  the  in 
dustry.  All  but  a  very  few  of  the  leading  companies  are  included 
in  the  130  analyzed,  and  a  particular  effort  was  made  to  include 
companies  promising  the  greatest  innovations,  whether  or  not  they 
were  in  actual  production  at  the  time. 

In  this  analysis,  the  various  methods,  designs,  and  facilities  are 
discussed  primarily  in  terms  of  the  number  of  companies  making  use 
of  them.  This  was  a  necessary  procedure,  for  accurate  information 
on  production  was  often  not  available,  and  in  many  cases  the  value 
of  an  idea  could  not  be  fairly  judged  by  production  figures.  Analysis 
by  numbers  of  companies  also  has  its  weakness,  however.  If  Lustron 
had  reached  its  expected  rate  of  production,  for  example,  it  would  be 
making  more  houses  per  year  than  have  been  sold  by  the  entire  in 
dustry  in  any  single  year  in  its  history.  From  the  viewpoint  of  the 
general  housing  market,  therefore,  a  decision  by  this  one  company 
might  have  importance  far  beyond  the  apparent  meaning  of  our 
figures.  On  the  other  hand,  our  principal  interest  in  this  part  of  the 
book  is  in  finding  out  what  patterns  of  operation  were  being  used  at 
the  time  when  the  greatest  number  of  companies  was  active  in  the 
field.  This  sort  of  information  can  best  be  approached  by  the  method 
which  we  have  adopted. 

The  discussion  is  broken  down  into  a  consideration  of  five  basic 
components  of  a  pattern  of  operations: 

Management 

Design 

Procurement 

Production 

Marketing 

and  the  treatment  is  factual  wherever  possible.    Factual  treatment  is 
not    always    possible,    however;    for    example,    the    prefabricators' 

1  Material  regarding  the  methods  used  in  this  survey,  lists  giving  full  names 
and  addresses  of  companies  visited,  and  other  reference  data  are  included  in  the 
Appendices. 

141 


thoughts  regarding  the  government  or  labor  can  be  reported  only  as 
opinion,  although  it  is  opinion  based  upon  interviews,  press  state 
ments,  and  actions  they  have  taken. 

The  bulk  of  the  material  in  this  part  of  the  book  was  gathered 
during  the  Bemis  Foundation's  field  survey  in  1946  and  1947,  but 
references  to  more  recent  developments  have  been  included  when 
these  would  help  to  give  a  full  understanding  of  the  problems  in 
volved  or  of  the  trends  within  the  industry  today. 

Because  of  the  organization  scheme  which  has  been  followed,  there 
is  in  this  part  of  the  book  some  duplication  of  material  presented  in 
the  first  part.  There,  the  references  were  usually  brief,  however, 
and  they  served  primarily  to  illustrate  general  points  under  discus 
sion.  Here,  interest  is  centered  on  specific  details  of  the  prefabrica- 
tion  process. 


142 


Part      A  X  • 

6 


Chapter 


MANAGEMENT 


I.  Background 


Many  of  the  differences  in  patterns  of  operations  of  prefabricators 
may  be  attributed  to  differences  in  background,  that  is,  in  the  nature 
of  the  business  from  which  the  prefabrication  business  developed 
and  in  the  previous  experience  of  top  management.  Unquestionably 
many  costly  mistakes  have  been  made  by  carrying  over  to  this  new 
industry  techniques  which  were  more  familiar  than  suitable.  On 
the  other  hand,  background  can  explain  the  success  of  certain  com 
panies  in  dealing  with  the  very  specialized  conditions  of  a  local 
market.  In  the  companies  analyzed,  the  following  types  of  back 
ground  were  noted: 

Frequency 
Previous  Experience  (per  cent) 

1  Building   contractors,   construction   engineers,   and  operative 

builders  31.2 

2  Building  materials  manufacturers  or  salesmen  19.5 

3  Architects  19.5 

4  General   manufacturers    (including   shipbuilding,  boxmaking, 

light  metal  fabrication,  and  heavy  industry)  17.5 

5  Salesmen  6.5 

6  Bankers  2.6 

7  Lawyers  1 . 9 

8  Other  1.3 

Without  exploring  in  detail  the  relationships  between  background 
and  the  final  nature  of  companies,  a  few  generalizations  are  possible 
from  our  data.  In  the  first  group,  several  companies  carried  over 
into  prefabrication  the  organizational  characteristics  of  large  con 
tracting  operations.  Some  of  these  tended,  after  a  short  period  of 
true  prefabrication,  to  return  once  more  to  the  more  conventional 
patterns  from  which  they  had  attempted  to  depart,  and  although 
there  might  be  many  other  reasons  for  this  return,  familiarity  with 
the  old  procedures  and  old  friendships  undoubtedly  exerted  their 
influence.  In  general,  however,  companies  developed  by  engineers 
and  builders  were  not  wealthy  or  large  enough  to  carry  out  a  radical 
approach  to  design,  even  had  they  wished  to  do  so. 

In  the  second  group,  particularly  among  the  lumber  dealers,  the 
tendency  was  to  regard  prefabrication  as  a  mere  refining  operation 
for  the  materials  handled.  Indeed,  during  the  materials  shortages 
following  the  war,  some  never  prefabricated  houses,  but  only  took 


advantage  of  their  favorable  supply  situation  and  the  regulations  of 
the  Office  of  Price  Administration  to  charge  substantially  higher 
prices  for  performing  a  few  additional  operations  on  the  materials 
as  "prefabricators."  Others,  however,  particularly  in  the  major  lum 
ber  supply  area  of  the  Pacific  Northwest,  made  use  of  their  experi 
ence  with  distribution  and  manufacturing  methods  to  bring  a  genu 
ine  efficiency  to  the  manufacture  of  houses. 

As  for  the  third  group,  architects  have  contributed  theories  more 
often  than  they  have  started  companies,  and,  when  they  have  set  up 
companies,  they  have  often  met  with  difficulties.  A  few,  however, 
have  been  aware  of  the  complexities  of  operating  in  the  house  manu 
facturing  field  and  have  been  able,  usually  by  marshaling  other  tal 
ents  about  them,  to  build  good  organizations. 

The  fourth  group,  with  experience  in  manufacturing  enterprises, 
often  had  the  tremendous  initial  advantages  of  well-rounded  staffs 
and  good  capitalization;  some  of  them,  however,  have  been  impeded 
by  their  attachment  to  certain  materials  or  by  the  deficiencies  of 
their  media  of  distribution.  In  general  they  have  been  characterized 
by  a  willingness  to  try  new  materials  and  designs  which  might  be 
well  suited  to  mass  production,  and  for  that  reason  they  have  been 
very  important  to  the  industry. 

Regarding  the  remaining  three  groups,  the  salesmen,  bankers,  and 
lawyers,  the  only  valid  generalization  that  can  be  made  is  that  both 
their  strength  and  their  weakness  lay  in  their  emphasis  on  detailed 
organization  and  salesmanship. 

On  the  whole,  the  men  in  top  management  positions  had  not  been 
trained  in  the  industry  itself,  although  a  few  companies  had  been 
started  or  staffed  by  "graduates"  of  other  companies.  This  is  under 
standable  when  it  is  realized  that  a  man  with  15  years'  experience 
could  rightly  consider  himself  a  charter  member  of  the  industry.  A 
breakdown  of  the  industry  by  length  of  time  each  company  has  been 
in  business  will  highlight  this  point,  the  more  so  because  many  of  the 
older  firms  were  really  precutters  rather  than  prefabricators.  As  of 
1947,  the  age  distribution  data  from  118  of  the  companies  in  our 
analysis  was: 

Number  of  Years  Number  of 

in  Business  Companies 

2  or  less  67 

3-7  24 

8-17  19 

18  or  more  8 

146 


An  important  recent  source  of  trained  men  has  been  the  various 
federal  agencies  dealing  with  housing,  and  there  is  a  trend  for  in 
creasingly  large  numbers  of  men  to  enter  the  field  from  the  profes 
sions  and  from  special  courses  in  the  colleges,  in  the  hope  of  growing 
up  with  the  industry. 

The  size  of  the  staff  may  be  used  as  a  reasonable,  if  rough,  indica 
tion  of  its  ability  to  handle  the  complete  pattern  of  operations.  At 
the  time  of  our  analysis,  at  least  50  companies  were  known  to  have 
staffs  exceeding  15  in  number,  a  number  probably  adequate  for  the 
job.  Of  those  having  less,  the  majority  tended  to  cut  out  certain 
services  which  they  regarded  as  unimportant;  architectural  services 
were  among  those  most  frequently  so  regarded. 

Fortunately,  the  minimum  requirements  of  the  FHA  and  of  build 
ing  codes  have  helped  to  prevent  some  of  the  worst  errors  which  might 
have  resulted  from  this  combination  of  ignorance  and  the  desire  to 
keep  down  costs.  A  few  companies  have  hired  consultants  to  advise 
them  on  various  aspects  of  their  operations,  with  the  result  that  a 
group— very  small  as  yet— of  specialists  has  grown  up  to  serve  in  this 
way.  Other  producers  have  allied  with  independent  organizations 
which  would  distribute  their  output;  these  distributors  were  often 
land  developers  as  well.  Still  others  have  purchased  the  design,  pro 
duction,  and  even  procurement  and  advertising  services  of  a  parent 
licensing  organization;  while  a  few,  offering  only  design  or  production 
ideas,  have  sought  out  other  organizations  with  the  capital  and  ability 
to  take  over  the  rest  of  the  operations. 

With  regard  to  the  function  of  research,  no  prefabricator  was 
doing  what  might  be  called  pure  research  and  very  few  were  doing 
applied  research,  although  nearly  all  the  80  largest  companies  had 
staff  personnel  engaged  at  least  part  time  in  short-range  product 
development  work.  There  were  51  companies  which  had  part-time 
research  personnel;  25  had  full-time  research  personnel;  and  at  least 
15  had  a  separate  research  and  development  division.  Naturally 
enough,  the  companies  in  the  process  of  getting  started  were  the 
more  likely  to  be  engaged  in  concentrated  development  work,  while 
those  under  way  tended  to  abandon  research  for  the  more  pressing 
problems  of  production  and  distribution,  hoping  to  return  to  it  when 
their  volume  could  support  the  expense  and  when  they  had  had  a 
chance  to  put  their  initial  designs  to  a  practical  test. 


147 


II.  Labor  Relations 


In  discussing  labor  relations  in  the  industry  a  distinction  should 
be  made  between  conditions  in  the  factory  and  those  at  the  site,  for 
there  are  substantial  differences.  Of  the  industry  as  a  whole,  how 
ever,  it  can  be  said  that  labor  relations  have  been  generally  good. 
Our  survey  found  this  to  be  particularly  true  in  the  plants,  and  a 
similar  generalization  has  been  made  by  PHMI,  which  reported  that 
"relations  between  employee  and  employer  have  been  uniformly 
good."1  True,  there  have  been  instances  of  restrictive  practices, 
but  the  testimony  of  the  manufacturers  seems  to  indicate  that  re 
ports  of  labor  opposition  to  prefabrication  have  been  magnified  out 
of  all  proportion,  and  certainly  since  the  end  of  the  recent  war  there 
seems  to  be  little  justification  for  the  accusation  that  organized  labor 
as  such  is  holding  up  the  development  of  the  industry.  In  part, 
labor's  attitude  stems  from  the  pledge  to  cooperate  made  by  unions 
during  the  Wyatt  program;  once  good  relationships  were  entered 
into,  most  unions  found  it  to  their  own  advantage  to  continue  in 
this  way.  Of  some  import  have  been  such  factors  as  the  recent  high 
level  of  construction  activity  and  the  plentiful  supply  of  construction 
jobs.  Probably  more  important  have  been  the  facts  that  most  of  the 
producing  units  are  relatively  new  and  small,  and  that  the  volume 
of  the  industry  as  a  whole  has  not  yet  been  such  as  to  attract  special 
labor  interest. 


Labor  Relations  in  the  Plant 

A.  Unions 


The  extent  to  which  the  industry  had  been  organized  at  the  time 
of  the  survey  was  difficult  to  determine  because  the  situation  was  in 

1  Quoted  from  testimony  by  Harry  Steidle  before  the  Joint  Committee  on 
Housing  of  the  80th  Congress,  January  14,  1948.  Mr.  Steidle  was  referring  to 
conditions  in  the  plant.  Austin  Drewry,  then  President  of  PHMI,  described 
employer-employee  relations  as  "excellent"  in  his  opening  address,  Fifth  Annual 
Meeting,  PHMI,  Chicago,  March  1948. 

148 


a  state  of  flux.  The  indications  were,  however,  that  in  1947  at  least 
two -thirds  and  probably  three-quarters  of  the  industry  was  union 
ized,  measured  either  by  number  of  companies  or  by  number  of 
employees.  The  AFL  had  organized  about  seven  times  as  many 
plants  as  the  CIO,  there  being  several  unaffiliated  unions  also. 
Among  the  AFL  shops,  the  most  prevalent  union  was  the  United 
Brotherhood  of  Carpenters  and  Joiners  of  America.  Several  plants 
were  organized  by  such  affiliates  of  this  brotherhood  as  the  millmen, 
boxmakers,  or  lumber  and  sawmill  workers,  who  had  less  of  a  craft 
background  and  lower  wage  rates  than  the  carpenters. 

With  the  advent  of  increasing  industrialization  in  house  manufac 
ture,  and  particularly  with  the  increasing  use  of  materials  not  tra 
ditionally  handled  by  union  members  in  the  housebuilding  trades, 
the  CIO  began  to  organize  prefabrication  plants.  For  a  while  it 
made  some  progress,  aided  by  manufacturers  who  sought  an  end 
to  the  restrictive  practices  of  craft  unions,  and  occasionally  by  the 
circumstance  that  an  existing  union  organization  might  be  carried 
over  from  another  enterprise  which  had  previously  occupied  the  same 
plant.2  More  recently,  however,  the  CIO  has  lost  ground,  at  least 
relative  to  the  AFL.  A  substantial  obstacle  in  its  path  has  been 
the  trouble  sometimes  encountered  in  the  field  where  AFL  labor  used 
for  erecting  the  house  refused  to  handle  material  made  by  CIO 
labor.  Another  obstacle  was  the  task  of  organizing  trades  such  as 
those  of  the  plumbers  and  electricians  which  have  traditionally  been 
organized  along  craft  rather  than  industrial  lines  and  have  been 
saturated  with  craft  attitudes.  A  not  inconsiderable  factor  in  explain 
ing  the  relative  halt  in  the  CIO's  organizing  drive  has  been  the 
failure  of  some  of  the  prefabricators  using  metal,  many  of  whose 
plants  the  CIO  had  organized. 

One  important  effect  of  the  CIO's  organizing  drive,  however,  was 
to  provoke  the  AFL  into  meeting  the  challenge.  AFL  unions  have 
entered  into  a  number  of  agreements  which  indicate  the  AFL's  deter 
mination  to  retain  its  position  in  the  residential  construction  field, 
even  in  its  most  industrialized  aspects.  Contracts  with  some  of  the 
larger  prefabricators  such  as  Gunnison,  National  Homes,  Pease,  and 
Lustron,  and  with  Borg-Warner  are  examples.  The  last  two  cases 
illustrate  the  special  effort  made  by  many  prefabricators  to  secure 
union  support.  Borg-Warner  went  to  the  plumbers'  union  at  an 
early  stage  and  secured  the  endorsement  of  the  international  office 
on  the  idea.  This  company  further  went  to  the  point  of  employing  a 

2  For  instance,  two  prefabricators  were  organized  by  the  Industrial  Union  of 
Marine  and  Shipbuilding  Workers  of  America,  CIO,  for  substantially  this  reason. 

149 


man  with  a  craft  union  background  to  handle  relationships  with  the 
master  plumbers,  through  whom  it  distributed  the  Ingersoll  Utility 
Unit,  and  to  participate  generally  in  the  labor  relations  between 
plant  and  field.  In  the  factory,  contracts  were  made  with  the 
plumbers,  sheet-metal  workers,  and  electricians.  The  Lustron  man 
agement  also  requested  unionization  from  the  start;  an  agreement 
was  made  with  three  AFL  unions  to  cover  the  whole  building  process, 
and  it  may  stand  as  an  example  of  the  growing  trend  towards  reduc 
ing  the  number  of  craft  unions  engaged  in  one  building  job;  in  this 
case  lathers,  plasterers,  and  painters  were  eliminated.  The  contract 
was  made  with  the  international  offices  of  the  carpenters,  plumbers, 
and  electricians  in  November  1947  and  was  featured  at  the  1948 
AFL  convention  as  a  sign  of  labor's  willingness  to  cooperate.  It 
provides  for  a  union  shop,  for  uninterrupted  production  and  effi 
cient  erection  at  United  States  and  Canadian  sites,  and  for  the 
avoidance  of  jurisdictional  disputes  by  limiting  the  number  of  crafts 
and  by  including  the  pledge  of  the  international  office  to  advise 
locals  and  enforce  the  contract. 


B.  Wages 


As  might  be  expected,  wage  rates  in  the  plant  generally  appeared 
to  be  lower  than  those  in  the  field  for  several  reasons.  First,  the 
order  of  skills  required  is  lower.  Second,  there  is  longer  and  steadier 
employment  and  therefore  the  likelihood  of  better  annual  take-home 
pay,  both  because  of  less  seasonality  in  the  volume  of  work  and 
because  of  a  lower  rate  of  turnover  among  jobs.  Third,  working 
conditions  are  better.  A  rough  measure  of  the  difference  which 
existed  between  factory  and  field  wage  rates  is  given  by  the  fol 
lowing  figures:  average  earnings  per  hour  of  employment  in  38 
prefabrication  plants  working  in  wood  in  July  1947  were  $1.14,3  while 
average  earnings  for  carpenters  in  all  private  building  projects  at 
the  same  time  were  $1.58.*  In  industries  somewhat  allied  to  pre 
fabrication,  however,  factory  wages  were  lower:  furniture  and  fin- 

3PHMI  Survey  of  Prefabrication  Activity,  1947.  (Actually  this  figure  is  a 
bit  high  since  it  includes  a  small  amount  of  overtime  earnings.) 

4  Monthly  Labor  Review,  65  (October  1947),  509.  The  comparison  cannot 
be  exact  since  the  averages  conceal  rather  large  geographical  variations  which 
are  not  weighted  equitably  for  purposes  of  comparison.  Prefabricators  usually 
more  closely  approach  project  rates  of  their  own  areas. 


ished  lumber  products,  $1.059  per  hour;  lumber  and  basic  timber 
products,  $1.033  per  hour.5 

Some  elements  in  the  carpenters'  union  have  gone  on  record 
against  this  differential  in  wage  rates,6  but,  notwithstanding  this, 
there  seems  to  be  a  trend  towards  paying  union  labor  in  the  factory 
at  a  lower  hourly  rate  than  members  of  the  same  union  receive  in  the 
field.  (Of  course,  the  annual  pay  may  be  the  same,  or  higher.)  In 
the  Kaiser  Community  Homes  plant  at  Los  Angeles,  in  February 
1947,  the  several  hundred  plant  employees  came  under  a  specially 
negotiated  contract  calling  for  an  AFL  closed  shop.  All  plant  men, 
with  the  exception  of  about  15  painters,  came  under  the  agreement 
made  with  the  International  Office  of  the  United  Brotherhood  of 
Carpenters  and  Joiners  of  America,  rather  than  with  any  local.7 

Inasmuch  as  a  good  many  plants  must  still  hire  hands  on  a  sea 
sonal  basis,  they  are  not  yet  entitled  to  contend  that  wage  rates 
should  be  lower  on  the  grounds  that  they  offer  stabilized  employ 
ment,  although  other  arguments  may  be  valid.  Where  prefabricators 
have  demonstrated  the  stable  nature  of  their  operations,  the  car- 

5  Ibid.,  p.  500. 

6 ".  .  .  Therefore,  be  it  resolved  that  the  United  Brotherhood  of  Carpenters 
and  Joiners  of  America  immediately  put  into  force  and  effect  the  prevailing  con 
struction  carpenter's  wage  scale  for  all  work  performed  within  the  pre-fab,  pre-cut 
and  mill  industry  which  is  normally  performed  on  the  job  site  by  construction 
carpenters." 

Resolution  No.  13,  approved  and  endorsed  by  the  San  Francisco  Bay  Dis 
trict  Council  of  Carpenters,  the  California  State  Mill  Committee,  and  six  Cali 
fornia  locals,  Proceedings  of  the  Twenty-Fifth  General  Convention  of  the  United 
Brotherhood  of  Carpenters  and  Joiners  of  America  (Lakeland,  Florida,  April  22- 
30,  1946),  p.  396. 

7  Certain  jobs  in  the  plant  required  journeymen  carpenters'  rates:  those  which 
would  ordinarily  be  carpenters'  work  if  done  in  the  field.  Jobs  such  as  nailing 
framing  members  or  cutting  rafters  earned  a  basic  field  rate  in  the  plant,  for 
instance,  but  the  slightly  different  circumstances  yielded  a  somewhat  lower  final 
rate  of  pay  than  the  outside  rate.  Men  in  the  plant  got  vacations  with  pay, 
however,  while  field  carpenters  did  not.  On  the  other  hand,  field  carpenters 
received  double  pay  for  overtime  up  to  the  first  four  hours  (45-hour  week,  gen 
erally).  Millmen,  affiliates  of  the  carpenters,  but  included  under  the  one  agree 
ment  like  all  other  men  in  the  plant,  ran  the  jointers,  bandsaws,  etc.  Those  who 
stapled  plywood  onto  framing,  ran  the  portable  sanding  machines,  and  did  other 
semiskilled  tasks  of  a  repetitive  nature  received  33#  per  hour  less  than  journey 
men's  rates.  Others  who  came  under  the  carpenters'  agreement  were  the  cabinet 
makers,  the  lumber  handlers  and  millhelpers  (members  of  the  Lumber  and 
Sawmill  Workers  local  affiliated  with  the  Brotherhood),  clerks,  and  checkers. 
Plant  foremen  received  12^  per  hour  more  than  the  journeymen  carpenters,  but 
5tf  per  hour  less  than  a  comparable  job  in  the  field.  In  general,  it  appears  that 
wage  rates  paid  in  the  plant  were  slightly  lower  than  those  paid  at  the  site. 


penters,  through  their  international  office,  have  in  some  cases  entered 
into  contracts  which  establish  the  principle  of  differentiation  be 
tween  field  journeymen  and  factory  journeymen  rates  of  pay  for 
performance  of  the  same  type  of  work.  Two  trends  thus  seem  evi 
dent:  a  decrease  in  the  number  of  unions  with  which  the  prefabricate!* 
has  to  deal,  and  a  growing  acceptance  by  trade  unions  of  different 
wage  rates  in  different  conditions  of  employment,  even  for  the  same 
type  of  work. 

Nor  are  these  the  only  signs  of  change  introduced  by  the  pre- 
fabricator  into  the  whole  pattern  of  industrial  relations  in  the  house 
building  industry.  There  is  the  growing  acceptance  of  many  of  the 
welfare  provisions  which  have  for  a  long  time  been  incorporated 
into  union-management  contracts  in  other  industries,  such  as  paid 
vacations,  health  insurance,  and  retirement  plans.  PHMI  found  in 
1947  that  33  member  companies  had  one  or  more  of  the  following:  8 

Number  of  Number  of 

Companies  Employees 

Life  insurance                 12  1,146 

Health  insurance             20  2,357 

Paid  vacation                  26  2,624 

Retirement  plans              3  497 

In  addition,  PHMI  found  that  15  companies  employing  1,347  work 
ers  had  wage  incentive  or  bonus  plans  of  one  sort  or  another— again 
indicating  that  old  patterns  in  the  building  trades  were  being  changed.9 
In  the  past  few  years  there  has  been  considerable  discussion  con 
cerning  the  guaranteed  annual  wage.  The  CIO  has  taken  a  strong 
position  in  favor  of  such  a  plan  for  the  building  industry,10  while  the 
AFL  has  voiced  equally  strong  opposition,  holding  that  building  is 
clearly  a  field  in  which  a  guaranteed  wage  plan  cannot  be  made  to 
work.11  The  recent  experience  of  prefabricators  with  the  problems 
of  stabilizing  sales,  procurement,  and  production  has  quite  naturally 
led  them  to  consider  any  such  scheme  a  grave  risk.  While  the  issues 
involved  are  complex,  it  does  seem  evident  that  the  guaranteed  an- 

8  PHMI  Survey  of  Prefabrication  Activity,  1947. 

9  Loc.  cit. 

10  Testimony   of  R.   J.   Thomas,   President,   United   Automobile,   Aircraft  and 
Agricultural  Implement  Workers  of  America  ( CIO ) ;  Chairman  of  the  CIO  Hous 
ing  Committee,  given  before  the  Senate  Special  Committee  on  Post-War  Eco 
nomic   Policy   and   Planning,   79th   Congress,    1st   Session    (Post-War   Economic 
Policy  and  Planning,  Part  10,  pp.  1678-9). 

11  William  Green,  "Your  Postwar  Income,"  American  Federationist,  52  (April 
1945),  32-3. 

152 


nual  wage  is  still  far  from  realization  in  the  industry,  because  of  the 
AFL's  dominance  in  prefabrication,  the  general  opposition  to  the 
scheme  by  the  building-trades  unions,  the  prefabricated  struggle  to 
overcome  seasonality  (which  has  thus  far  been  but  partially  success 
ful),  and  his  often  insecure  financial  position. 


C.  Restrictive  Practices 


Despite  the  generally  good  labor  relations  in  the  plants,  there 
have  been  instances  of  restrictive  practices  on  the  part  of  unions 
at  this  level.  The  testimony  of  certain  manufacturers  who  related 
particular  incidents  must  be  weighted  more  heavily  than  the  flat 
denial  of  such  practices  by  some  union  spokesmen.  Six  companies 
stated  that  they  were  prevented  from  spraying  paints  in  their  plant 
because  of  union  opposition,  while  others  had  spraying  time  severely 
limited.  Whether  the  union's  usual  objection  that  spray  guns  are 
not  safe  from  a  health  standpoint  was  adequately  met  in  these  cases 
is  not  known,  but  paint  spraying  can  be  made  safe  in  a  factory,  and 
it  is  a  fact  that  spray  guns  were  known  to  be  in  use  in  seven  AFL 
plants.  Some  15  companies  stated  positively  that  they  were  pre 
vented  from  prefabricating  plumbing  of  any  sort  because  of  union 
opposition.  Many  more  were  probably  affected.  In  the  case  of 
plumbing,  however,  it  is  difficult  to  separate  union  opposition  from 
what  might  better  be  termed  resistance  to  a  change  in  conventional 
plumbing  material  distribution  methods,  since  the  two  are  usually 
tied  together,  and  from  the  effects  of  local  building-code  regula 
tions.  Twenty-seven  companies  stated  that  they  had  refrained  from 
prefabricating  plumbing  because  of  a  combination  of  these  factors. 
Master  plumbers  have  a  natural  interest  in  opposing  the  prefabrica 
tion  of  plumbing,  since  its  logical  course  is  to  reduce  or  eliminate 
their  sales  of  fixtures  and  supplies  in  connection  with  their  installa 
tion  work.  Prefabricators  were  able  in  some  cases  to  make  arrange 
ments  with  master  plumbers  to  fabricate  plumbing  assemblies  in  the 
plant  through  what  amounted  to  a  royalty  agreement  with  the 
master  plumbers.  On  the  other  hand,  at  least  27  companies  were 
known  to  be  preassembling  plumbing  and  six  companies  were  known 
to  be  precutting  it,  which  indicates  that  a  new  pattern  is  evolving 
and  that  through  persuasion  and  compromise  some  of  the  opposi 
tion  is  disappearing  as  time  goes  on. 

153 


There  have  also  been  cases  where,  because  of  definite  opposition 
from  the  electricians'  union,  wiring  was  not  preins tailed.  However, 
it  is  often  difficult  to  know  just  how  the  opposition  is  exerted,  and 
just  what  connection,  if  any,  the  unions  have  with  code  provisions 
which  protect  their  special  interest.  A  not  uncommon  practice,  for 
instance,  is  to  resist  prefabrication  indirectly  through  a  general  code 
requirement  such  as  that  all  wiring  installations  be  field  inspected. 
If  such  a  provision  is  literally  interpreted,  it  can  prevent  the  pre- 
installation  of  wiring  in  panels  which  have  both  interior  and  exterior 
surfaces  applied  in  the  factory.  Furthermore,  some  codes  require 
rigid  metal  conduiting  for  electrical  installations,  while  others  require 
flexible  cable,  thus  making  it  impossible  for  the  prefabricator  to  stand 
ardize  his  installations. 

In  some  areas,  according  to  the  prefabricators,  union  officials  have 
made  purposefully  unreasonable  demands  as  to  the  number  of  skilled 
workers  and  the  general  wage  rates  to  be  agreed  to  by  management 
before  production  could  start,  in  order  to  prevent  companies  from 
establishing  themselves  in  the  house  manufacturing  field. 

No  prefabricator  reported  having  trouble  in  his  plant  from  juris- 
dictional  disputes.  There  may  have  been  some  loss  in  the  potential 
efficiency  of  the  labor  force  on  occasions  when  the  union  contract 
would  not  permit  a  prefabricator  to  shift  workers  from  one  task  to 
another,  but  no  particular  instance  of  this  sort  was  mentioned.  Gen 
eral  Homes,  Inc.,  which  was  organized  by  the  CIO,  did  emphasize 
the  importance  of  the  provision  in  its  contract  which  permitted  any 
man  in  the  plant  to  shift  to  different  tasks  at  different  times  as  the 
situation  might  demand.  Such  a  provision  might  well  help  to  stabi 
lize  the  factory  labor  force,  and  might  be  particularly  important  in 
the  field,  where  flexibility  would  help  to  avoid  delays  and  would  per 
mit  the  more  efficient  use  of  manpower.  This  sort  of  thing  has  been 
resisted  by  the  craft  unions,  but  the  CIO  has  strongly  supported  it. 
The  following  letters  are  an  indication  of  this  attitude: 

Since  we  are  an  industrial  union,  we  have  no  difficulty  with  jurisdictional 
matters.  We  apply  the  same  policy  to  those  of  our  workers  engaged  in 
prefabrication  of  homes  as  we  do  to  those  engaged  in  the  shipbuilding  in 
dustry. 

.  .  .  We  do  not  oppose  any  device  to  expand  the  average  productivity 
of  the  individual  work.  However,  we  do  insist  the  economic  result  of 
increased  productivity  be  shared  by  the  worker,  as  well  as  by  management 
and  the  consumer.  .  .  ,12 

12  John  Green,  President,  Industrial  Union  of  Marine  and  Shipbuilding  Work 
ers  of  America,  in  a  letter  to  the  Bemis  Foundation,  June  10,  1947. 


Members  of  this  union  are  engaged  in  various  types  of  lumber  pre- 
fabrication. 

We  are  not  opposed  to  labor-saving  devices,  provided  the  workers  are 
given  a  fair  share  of  the  added  production  which  can  be  achieved  through 
the  use  of  such  devices.  .  .  . 

We  are  an  industrial  union  in  the  logging  and  woodworking  industry, 
and  have  no  internal  jurisdictional  problems  like  the  building  trades  craft 
unions.  .  .  ,18 

Generally  speaking,  union  efforts  to  restrict  plant  prefabrication 
have  been  minor  in  extent,  and  there  is  evidence  that  they  are  be 
coming  steadily  even  less  important. 


Labor  Relations  in  the  Field 

Labor  relations  of  prefabricators  in  the  field  are  much  the  same 
as  in  the  rest  of  the  housebuilding  industry.  They  are,  of  course, 
tied  up  with  the  prefabricated  marketing  system,  for  when  he 
undertakes  to  do  his  own  erection,  he  is  likely  to  use  a  different 
form  of  labor  organization  from  that  used  by  a  dealer-erector.  In 
fact,  dealer-erectors  have  handled  most  of  the  erection  work,  and  their 
labor  relations  have  been  typical  of  the  small-  or  medium-sized 
builder  and  have  involved  a  number  of  the  same  AFL  unions  at 
their  regular  hourly  wage  rates.  On  the  other  hand,  General  Homes 
planned  to  carry  out  its  own  erections  with  CIO  labor  under  the 
contract  mentioned  above,  an  arrangement  sought  partly  out  of  the 
fear  that  AFL  labor  would  refuse  to  handle  the  job. 

Such  a  fear  was  not  wholly  ill-founded.  There  have  been  a  num 
ber  of  instances  in  which  AFL  unions  have  opposed  the  erection  of 
houses  fabricated  by  another  AFL  organization  or  by  non-union  or 
CIO  workers.  These  date  back  at  least  as  far  as  the  well-publicized 
occasion  in  1940  when  a  gang  of  AFL  men  attacked  a  CIO  erection 
crew  working  on  a  Gunnison  house  in  East  St.  Louis,  Mo.  In  the 
past  few  years  there  have  been  other  incidents. 

In  early  1947,  The  Green  Lumber  Company,  which  had  established 
a  CIO  shop  through  a  recent  election,  sold  some  200  houses  to  a 
builder  in  Jackson,  Miss.  When  the  builder  tried  to  hire  AFL  men 
to  erect  his  houses,  the  business  agent  refused  to  allow  his  men  to 
handle  the  job.  Although  both  the  National  Housing  Agency  and 
CIO  officials  appealed  to  him,  the  sale  had  to  be  canceled. 

18  J.  E.  Fadling,  President,  International  Woodworkers  of  America,  in  a  letter 
to  the  Bemis  Foundation,  June  9,  1947. 

755 


The  Scott  Lumber  Company,  producing  Scott  Homes,  presented  a 
somewhat  different  case  at  about  the  same  time.  The  plant  had  been 
organized  as  a  closed  shop  by  the  AFL  carpenters,  but  the  dealer 
in  Dunkirk,  N.  Y.,  ran  into  strong  opposition  from  local  689  of  the 
carpenters.  The  local's  position  was  that  its  members  wanted  to 
"build  houses,  not  erect  them,"  that  there  was  plenty  of  labor  and 
materials  locally  available  to  do  the  job,  and  that  the  Scott  men, 
albeit  of  the  same  brotherhood,  were  performing  in  the  factory  at 
Wheeling,  W.  Va.,  the  work  they  felt  themselves  entitled  to  do.14 

The  Harnischfeger  Corporation  also  ran  into  trouble  in  1947  when 
it  refused  to  agree  to  a  preferential  hiring  clause  in  a  contract  with 
the  carpenters.  The  union  ordered  its  members  to  discontinue  erec 
tion  of  the  houses  and  sent  letters  to  its  membership  advising  that 
neither  they  nor  members  of  any  other  building-trades  union  erect 
houses  which  did  not  bear  the  label  of  the  United  Brotherhood.15 
The  carpenters  even  went  so  far  as  to  direct  their  locals  and  district 
councils  to  adopt  a  by-law  that 

No  member  will  use,  handle,  install  or  erect  any  material  produced  or 
manufactured  from  wood  not  made  by  members  of  the  United  Brother 
hood.16 

It  should  be  noted  that  the  above  practices  might  well  be  found 
to  be  illegal  under  the  secondary  boycott  provisions  of  the  Taft- 
Hartley  law.17 

There  have  been  other  forms  of  union  obstruction  in  the  field, 
such  as  refusal  to  handle  certain  prefabricated  elements— plumbing, 
preglazed  sash,  prehung  doors.  On  occasions  there  have  been  delays 
caused  by  jurisdictional  disputes,  most  frequently  in  the  case  of  the 
erection  of  a  metal  house  where  no  clear  precedent  had  been  estab 
lished.  The  William  H.  Harman  Corporation  encountered  one  such 
instance; 18  and  on  occasion  there  has  been  a  more  general  and  very 
understandable  opposition,  such  as  that  voiced  by  William  J.  Mc- 
Sorley,  General  President  of  the  Wood,  Wire,  and  Metal  Lathers 
International  Union,  AFL: 

14  Dunkirk  Evening  Observer,  March  29,  1947,  p.  1. 

15  Labor  Relations  Reporter,  Vol.  20,  no.  51   (October  27,  1947),  395-6. 

16  Minutes  of  the  Meeting  of  the  General  Executive  Board,   Lakeland,   Fla., 
January  16,  1947,  The  Carpenter,  LXVII  (March  1947),  21. 

17  Labor-Management  Relations  Act,  1947  (Public  Law  101),  effective  June 
23,  1947,  Section  8  (b)  (4)  (A). 

18  The  New  York  Times,  August  20,  1948,  p.   18.     Jurisdictional  disputes  are 
also  illegal  under  the  Taft-Hartley  law,  but  delays  can  occur  without  there  be 
ing  a  strike  and  without  the  case  coming  to  court. 

156 


...  I  desire  to  say  .  .  .  that  most  of  the  prefabricated  houses  are  de 
signed  and  built  without  any  lathing  and  plastering  in  them.  .  .  .  This  of 
course  is  one  of  the  principal  reasons  why  we  are  opposed  to  prefabricated 
housing,  and  some  of  the  reasons  are  contained  in  the  enclosed  pamphlet 
which  has  been  issued  by  the  National  Foundation  for  Lathing  and  Plaster 
ing.  .  .  .  We  believe  that  all  houses  that  are  erected  for  the  purpose  of 
housing  human  beings  should  be  lathed  and  plastered  in  a  proper  manner, 
so  as  to  protect  sanitation  and  health  of  the  inhabitants  ...  to  be  candid, 
we  are  not  doing  anything  to  promote  any  program  that  will  have  a 
tendency  to  put  us  out  of  business.  .  .  ,19 

Union  opposition  in  the  field  has  thus  been  of  considerably  more 
concern  than  that  in  the  shop.  But  it  should  be  remembered  that 
the  few  cases  of  union  opposition  get  more  publicity  than  the  many 
cases  of  union  cooperation.  Building  is  not  the  only  field  in  which 
technological  change  has  been  resisted,  and  experience  shows  that 
adjustments  are  made  in  the  course  of  time.  Prefabrication,  in  one 
form  or  another,  is  a  growing  reality;  the  need  for  housing  calls  for 
production  in  tremendous  quantities;  and  public  pressure  will  call 
for  an  end  to  restrictive  practices.  In  view  of  these  factors  it  does  not 
seem  unreasonably  optimistic  to  summarize  that  the  problem  of  union 
opposition  is  relatively  small  and  appears  to  be  growing  smaller. 


III.  Financing 


A.  Capitalization 

It  has  frequently  been  said  in  the  industry  that  a  successful  pre- 
fabricator  requires  about  $1,000,000  in  capitalization.  How  many 
of  them  have  reached  this  figure?  Very  little  information  on  capital 
investment  in  the  industry  is  publicly  available.  Some  manufacturers 
decline  to  reveal  such  figures,  and  in  other  cases  the  capital  invest 
ment  for  the  production  of  prefabricated  houses  is  hidden  in  a  figure 
giving  the  total  capitalization  of  a  firm  in  which  prefabrication  is  but 
a  subsidiary  activity. 

Table  1  gives  the  distribution  of  capital  ratings  published  in  1947 

19  In  a  letter  to  the  Bemis  Foundation,  June  2,  1947. 

757 


Table  1 

Capital  Rating  of  Prefabricators 


$1,000,000 


$500,000 


$300,000 


$100,OOD 


$10,000 


$25,000 


$50,000 


126  Firms  from  Thomas'  Register  of  American  Manufacturers,  Ed.  38,  vol.  1 
(December  1947),  columns  7863-5. 


158 


by  one  register.  It  will  be  noted  that  information  was  available  for 
only  slightly  over  half  of  the  companies  listed  in  the  register.  Those 
which  refused  information  included  several  of  the  largest  companies. 
It  should  be  pointed  out,  however,  that  the  13  companies  capitalized 
at  over  $1,000,000  represented  for  the  most  part  investments  not  solely 
or  even  primarily  in  prefabrication.  Only  a  few  of  the  13  started  out 
as  prefabricators  and  reached  the  million-dollar  class. 

PHMI  estimated  that  at  the  end  of  1947  the  80  or  so  companies  that 
were  actively  engaged  in  prefabrication  represented  a  total  capital 
investment  of  about  $60,000,000,  with  an  additional  $36,000,000  in 
vested  in  the  industry's  dealers.20  These  figures,  too,  would  indicate 
that  there  may  be  an  appreciable  number  of  firms  in  the  industry 
capitalized  in  excess  of  $1,000,000. 


B.  Sources  of  Investment  Capital 


Only  three  prefabricators  are  known  to  have  raised  their  capital 
through  public  stock  subscription:  Anchorage  Homes,  Inc.,  General 
Panel  Corporation  of  New  York,  and  William  H.  Harman  Corpora 
tion.  In  the  majority  of  cases,  capital  has  been  obtained  privately, 
usually  through  individuals,  sometimes  through  parent  organizations, 
but  seldom  through  financial  institutions.  It  is  more  or  less  to  be 
expected  in  an  industry  such  as  this  where  risks  have  been  high  that 
the  banks  would  be  of  only  minor  assistance.  Only  14  companies 
indicated  that  they  had  gone  to  banks  for  long-term  capital  loans, 
while  10  companies  reported  that  they  had  experienced  difficulties 
with  banks;  most  companies  reported  no  dealings  at  all  with  banks 
in  connection  with  long-term  capital  requirements. 

A  large  segment  of  the  industry  has  been  financed  by  parent  cor 
porations  of  one  type  or  another.  Among  the  prefabricators  active 
at  the  time  of  our  survey,  many  owed  either  their  original  formation 
or  much  of  their  capitalization  to  large  industrial  enterprises.  Partly 
because  of  this  parenthood,  these  were  some  of  the  best-known  names: 
Gunnison  Homes  (United  States  Steel  Corporation);  Stran-Steel  Arch 
Rib  Homes  (Great  Lakes  Steel  Corporation);  Wingfoot  Homes 
(Goodyear  Tire  &  Rubber  Co.);  Butler  Homes  (Butler  Manufactur 
ing  Company);  Kaiser  Community  Homes  (Henry  J.  Kaiser);  Ther- 
mo-namel  Houses  (Higgins  Industries);  Lustron  (Chicago  Vitreous 

20  Austin  Drewry,  President,  PHMI,  Opening  Address  at  Winter  Meeting,  De 
cember  15,  1947. 

159 


Enamel  Product  Co.);  and  P  &  H  Homes  ( Harnischf eger  Corpora 
tion).  Such  companies  also  had  some  of  the  largest  and  best- 
equipped  plants  in  the  industry. 

Other  prefabricators  have  been  financed  in  large  part  by  large  con 
tractors  and  builders,  as,  for  example,  Johnson  Quality  Homes,  Inc., 
by  John  A.  Johnson  Contracting  Corporation,  and  Kaiser  Community 
Homes  by  Fritz  B.  Burns.  Still  other  companies  have  been  financed 
by  parent  lumber  or  plywood  organizations,  such  as  Prenco  by 
C.  D.  Johnson  Lumber  Corporation,  Hayward  Homes  by  Hayward 
Lumber  and  Investment  Co.,  and  General  Timber  Service  by  Weyer 
haeuser  Timber  Co.21 

Some  companies  have  financed  part  of  their  operations  through  a 
licensing  system  under  which  they  receive  royalties  from  licensee 
manufacturers  operating  in  various  localities.  Ivon  R.  Ford,  Inc.,  had 
some  nine  licensees  at  the  time  of  the  survey,  and  American  Houses, 
Inc.,  had  six,  in  addition  to  its  own  three  plants.22 

There  have  been  numerous  enterprises  which  failed  to  get  into 
production  for  lack  of  venture  capital.  While  this  might  be  true  of 
any  enterprise,  it  is  probably  harder  to  attract  venture  capital  to 
new  methods  of  housebuilding  than  into  most  other  fields,  and  per 
haps  rightly  so.  Part  of  the  explanation  lies  in  the  mass  of  obstacles 
which  the  innovator  in  this  field  faces  in  the  way  of  restrictive  prac 
tices,  codes,  consumer  resistance  to  change,  and  so  forth— a  list 
which  has  been  enumerated  many  times.  Another  part  lies  in  the 
extent  to  which  aspects  of  building  permeate  a  vast  range  of  institu 
tions:  family,  neighborhood,  city  government,  public  utilities,  or 
ganized  labor,  big  business,  real  estate,  financial  institutions.  What 
ever  the  causes,  and  there  are  more  than  a  few,  housebuilding  has 
been  dubbed  "the  industry  capitalism  forgot"  23  and  has  been  singled 
out  frequently  as  that  industry  most  in  need  of  the  sort  of  revolu 
tion  that  has  characterized  the  history  of  capitalism.  Raising  venture 
money  has  not  been  made  easier  by  a  number  of  well-publicized 
failures  in  prefabrication,  especially  recently,  even  though  an  anal 
ysis  of  the  proposed  patterns  of  operations  would  have  revealed  from 

21  Very    indirectly,    several    other    companies    were   related    to    large    capital. 
Many   Baldwin   Locomotive   officers   were   interested    in   Harman;    Consolidated 
Vultee  decided  not  to  back  a  house,  but  some  of  its  officers  were  associated  with 
Southern  California  Homes;  and  the  Ibec  house  is  a  venture  of  Nelson  Rockefeller. 
The  ultimate  decision  of  Beech  Aircraft  not  to  produce  for  Fuller  was  a  major 
blow  to  Fuller  Houses. 

22  The  license  arrangement  was  perhaps  most  extensively  used  just  before  the 
war  by  Precision-Built  Homes  Corporation  which  at  that  time  had  67  licensees. 

™  Fortune,  XXXVI  (August  1947),  61. 

160 


the  start  that  failure  was  very  likely  in  most  cases.  Consequently 
the  companies  having  the  most  radical  ideas  and  generally  involving 
the  greatest  risks  have  had  even  more  difficulty  with  financing  than 
might  be  expected.  Perhaps  the  most  spectacular  case  of  this  sort 
was  the  Fuller  house,  an  enterprise  attended  by  much  notoriety  be 
cause  of  its  boldness  and  novelty,  but  one  which  never  got  under 
way  because  of  failure  to  attract  enough  risk  capital.24  Other  some 
what  more  conservative  companies  have  also  had  to  struggle  to  get 
private  financing— Lustron,  General  Panel  Corporation  of  California, 
Reliance  Homes,  and  Southern  California  Homes  are  examples,  each 
one  of  which  proposed  major  innovations.  • 

One  result  of  this  situation  has  been  a  debate,  inside  the  industry 
and  out,  and  often  quite  heated,  as  to  whether  a  very  large  initial 
investment  is  a  necessary  condition  for  success  in  prefabrication  and 
if  so  whether  the  government  should  take  an  active  part  by  securing, 
or  even  making,  such  an  investment.  On  one  side  have  been  the 
older  and  more  conventional  members  of  the  industry,  usually  work 
ing  in  wood,  who  have  held  that  the  industry  would  grow  of  itself 
if  only  given  the  chance,  that  no  huge  investments  were  needed,  par 
ticularly  if  they  had  to  be  government  sponsored,  and  that  no  special 
favors  were  required,  but  only  a  minimum  of  government  regulation 
of  sufficient  stability  to  make  planning  by  business  possible.  On 
the  other  side  have  been  many  of  the  newer  and  more  unconven 
tional  companies  which  have  argued  that  thus  far  prefabrication  has 
not  made  good  on  its  promise  of  cost  reduction,  that  revolution,  not 
evolution,  is  necessary,  that  houses  can  be  mass  produced  at  really 
low  costs  only  by  an  enterprise  which  represents  a  complete  dis 
continuity  with  the  past  in  both  the  nature  and  the  scale  of  its  opera 
tions,  and  that  in  a  housing  emergency  the  government  should  take 
an  active  part  in  encouraging  such  ventures.  By  and  large  these 
divergent  opinions  were  represented  respectively  by  the  Prefabri 
cated  Home  Manufacturers'  Institute  and  the  National  Association 
of  Housing  Manufacturers,  but  were  by  no  means  confined  to  them. 
The  latter  philosophy  lay  behind  the  Wyatt  program  and  in  the 
somewhat  less  active  role  the  government  has  played  since  the 
Veterans'  Emergency  Housing  Program  ended.  In  any  case,  the  gov 
ernment  has  become  an  important  factor  in  the  financing  of  the 
industry  in  recent  years. 

The  sale  or  lease  of  surplus  war  plants  to  prefabricators  is  one 
direct  means  by  which  the  government  assisted  certain  firms  in  estab- 

24  See  "What  became  of  the  Fuller  house,"  Fortune,  XXXVII  (May  1948),  168. 

161 


lishing  themselves.  The  Housing  Expediter  was  empowered  by  the 
Veterans'  Emergency  Housing  Act25  to  direct  that  certain  surplus 
production  facilities  be  disposed  of  for  use  in  the  manufacture  of 
housing.  Nine  prefabricators  are  known  to  have  acquired  plant 
facilities  in  this  way,  several  of  the  factories  being  very  excellent 
buildings  once  used  for  aircraft  production.26 

More  important  to  the  capitalization  of  the  industry  have  been  the 
three  financial  mechanisms  involved  in  the  government  program: 
loans,  market  guarantees,  and  the  insurance  of  loans  made  by  private 
institutions.27  The  last  two  are  concerned  more  with  working  capital 
than  investment  capital  and  are  discussed  later  in  the  section  on 
credit.  The  loan  program  developed  out  of  a  background  which  had 
seen  the  wide  use  of  government  powers  in  times  of  national  defense 
and  war,  and  out  of  legislation  that  extended  some  of  these  powers 
into  a  time  of  drastic  housing  emergency.  Under  the  provisions  of 
the  Veterans'  Emergency  Housing  Act  the  Housing  Expediter  was 
given  the  authority  to  direct  the  RFC  to  make  loans  to  prefabricators. 
Early  in  the  history  of  this  program  there  were  a  number  of  disputes 
between  the  RFC,  which  declined  to  make  loans  that  it  considered 
unsound,  and  the  Office  of  the  Housing  Expediter,  which  held  that 
the  risks  were  not  as  great  as  imagined  and  that  in  any  event  the 
housing  emergency  justified  such  risks.  The  nature  and  outcome  of 
these  disputes  were  partially  responsible  for  Wyatt's  resignation  as 
Housing  Expediter; 28  however,  the  RFC  had  made  20  OHE-sponsored 
loans  to  prefabricators  by  June  1,  1948.  These  loans  totaled  $38,- 
290,000,  and,  as  of  that  date,  disbursements  had  been  made  to  12 
of  the  companies  in  the  total  amount  of  $9,565,000.29 

25  Public  Law  388,  79th  Congress,  approved  May  22,  1946. 

26  For   instance,    Lustron   obtained   part   of   the   Curtiss- Wright   plant   in   Co 
lumbus,  O.,  and  General  Panel  part  of  the  Lockheed  plant  in  Burbank,  Calif. 
Source:  War  Assets  Administration,  Office  of  Real  Property  Disposal,  June  1947. 

27  It  should  also  be  remembered  that  another  type  of  government  assistance 
to  prefabricators  was  the  priorities  and  allocations  program  through  which,  at  a 
time  of  critical  postwar  shortages,  materials  were  channeled  to  them. 

28  December  4,  1946. 

29  Source:  RFC  records  to  June  1,  1948,  reviewed  by  the  Bemis  Foundation. 
Of  the  8  companies  to  which  no  disbursements  had  been  made: 

1  loan  was  outstanding. 

7  loans  had  been  canceled.     Of  these: 

4  companies  abandoned  plans. 

1  company  obtained  financing  from  other  sources. 

1  company  failed  to  raise  necessary  equity. 

1  company  withdrew  application. 

162 


The  largest  single  loan  was  the  initial  loan  of  $15,500,000  to  the 
Lustron  Corporation,  made  only  after  a  considerable  period  during 
which  the  matter  was  extensively  debated.  At  the  time  that  the 
formation  of  Lustron  was  announced  $840,000  in  private  capital  had 
been  raised.30  The  RFC  subsequently  made  loans  to  Lustron  which 
eventually  more  than  doubled  the  initial  amount,  by  its  own  decision 
and  not  under  direction  from  the  OHE,  which  was  later  functioning 
in  a  liquidating  capacity  only.  Thus  the  most  heavily  capitalized 
enterprise  in  the  industry,  one  several  times  bigger  than  the  next 
largest  firm,  was  almost  entirely  financed  by  the  government. 

The  principle  of  government  loans  to  prefabricators  was  extended 
by  the  Housing  Act  of  1948,  passed  by  the  Special  Session  of  the  80th 
Congress.31  The  Act  authorized  the  RFC  to  make  loans  for  the 
production  of  prefabricated  houses  or  components  or  for  large-scale 
site  construction,  but  if  such  loans  were  used  for  the  purchase  of 
equipment,  plant,  or  machinery  the  loan  was  not  to  exceed  75%  of  its 
purchase  price.  Such  loans  were  not  to  exceed  $50,000,000  out 
standing  at  any  one  time,  and  were  not  to  be  made  if  financing  was 
otherwise  available  on  reasonable  terms. 


C.  Credit 


According  to  some,  the  most  important  and  least  understood  prob 
lem  facing  prefabricators  is  that  of  credit.  While  this  may  be  an 
extreme  point  of  view,  it  is  nonetheless  true  that  obtaining  credit  has 
been  a  crucial  question  for  many  firms,  particularly  in  the  steady  and 
continuous  flow  that  may  be  required  throughout  every  phase  of  the 
housebuilding  process— by  the  prefabricator  to  pay  for  raw  mate 
rials,  labor,  and  other  costs  of  production;  by  the  dealer  to  pay  the 
prefabricator  for  the  factory  package;  and  by  the  homebuyer  to  pay 
the  dealer  for  the  completed  house.  In  the  production  process  the 
sums  involved  tend  to  be  very  large,  and  many  prefabricators  cannot 
finance  their  operations  without  resorting  to  working  capital  loans 
of  one  sort  or  another. 

The  total  investment  of  a  prefabricator  who  undertakes  to  pro 
duce  100  house  packages  at  $4,000  per  package  is  $400,000.  If 
these  houses  cannot  be  sold  to  a  dealer  for  cash,  the  prefabricators 

30  The  New  York  Times,  November  1,  1947,  p.  22. 
81  Public  Law  901,  approved  August  10,  1948. 

163 


capital  will  be  tied  up  in  them,  and  he  will  soon  have  to  cease  pro 
duction.  Similarly,  the  dealer  cannot  use  his  capital  again  until  the 
customer  pays  him  for  the  finished  house.  It  is  not  enough  that 
financing  be  available  at  all  stages;  it  must  be  available  without 
delay,  so  that  the  flow  of  funds  will  proceed  at  a  pace  with  the 
flow  of  materials  and  fabricated  products.  The  last  two  stages,  re 
lating  to  dealer  credit  and  consumer  credit,  are  discussed  in  the 
chapter  on  marketing,  leaving  only  the  credit  which  is  extended  to 
the  prefabricator  for  working  capital  loans  to  be  treated  here,  al 
though  all  three  are  interrelated. 

First  of  all,  it  should  be  pointed  out  that  not  all  prefabricators 
have  had  a  problem  in  obtaining  working  capital.  Many  companies 
have  had  no  need  to  borrow  for  this  purpose,  either  because  they 
have  steadily  accumulated  sufficient  capital  for  their  scale  of  opera 
tions,  or  because  they  have  large  parent  concerns  which  make  such 
capital  available  to  them.  Other  firms  were  able  to  obtain  credit 
from  their  materials  suppliers,  especially  in  cases  where  the  pre 
fabricator  had  previously  established  contacts  with  them  in  some 
other  type  of  building  enterprise.  Most  of  the  older  members  of  the 
industry  had  lines  of  credit  with  the  banks.  Thus  it  was  primarily 
the  youngest  firms,  and  particularly  those  which  planned  to  commence 
operations  on  a  large  scale,  that  encountered  difficulty.  Not  infre 
quently  these  were  regarded  as  risky  ventures,  and  the  problem  was 
therefore  to  earn  the  confidence  of  the  banks.  The  bankers  expected 
these  firms  to  prove  themselves  through  successful  operations  over  a 
period  of  time,  but  how  were  they  to  get  started? 

One  device  which  was  designed  in  part  to  meet  this  problem  was 
the  guaranteed  market  contract,  under  which  it  was  hoped  to  re 
duce  the  risk  attending  a  new  prefabrication  venture  by  having  the 
government  act  in  an  underwriting  capacity.  The  Veterans'  Emer 
gency  Housing  Act  authorized  the  RFC  to  guarantee  markets  for 
prefabricated  houses  to  the  extent  found  necessary  by  the  Housing 
Expediter  in  order  to  assure  a  sufficient  supply  for  the  Veterans' 
Emergency  Housing  Program,  but  the  number  of  houses  covered  by 
the  outstanding  guarantees  was  at  no  time  to  exceed  200,000,  nor 
was  the  net  loss  to  the  government  to  exceed  5%  of  the  total  guarantee 
undertaken.  A  number  of  criteria  were  set  forth:  guarantees  would 
be  of  temporary  duration,  would  be  pointed  towards  low-cost  prod 
ucts,  would  not  cut  into  the  market  for  conventional  houses,  and 
would  be  awarded  only  after  rigid  tests  on  the  house  and  a  demon 
stration  of  ability  to  perform  by  the  prospective  producer.  In  brief, 
the  contracts  specified  a  production  schedule  and  provided  that  if 

164 


the  prefabricator  was  unable  to  sell  what  he  had  manufactured, 
the  units  would  be  purchased,  subject  to  certain  conditions,  by  the 
RFC.  The  manufacturer  was  obligated  to  repurchase  the  units  from 
the  RFC  before  selling  any  more  houses  of  the  same  or  equivalent 
type.  Thus  it  should  be  noted  that  the  guaranteed  market  contract 
did  not  provide  a  market  into  which  could  be  continuously  poured 
the  output  of  a  prefabricator;  it  did  not  offer  an  opportunity  for 
operational  improvements  by  absorbing  the  output  during  a  period 
in  which  changes  in  design,  production,  or  distribution  technique 
might  be  made.  Once  a  prefabricator  tendered  houses  to  the  gov 
ernment,  he  was  essentially  forced  to  halt  production.  The  con 
tracts  did  serve  as  collateral,  however,  by  certifying  that  the  gov 
ernment  was  ready  to  buy  what  could  not  be  sold  elsewhere,  and 
thus  they  enabled  some  companies  to  obtain  loans  for  much  needed 
capital. 

Of  74  companies  which  applied  for  market  guarantees,  20  received 
contracts,  all  terminating  December  31,  1947.32  The  contracts  guar 
anteed  the  market  for  61,696  units  out  of  a  total  original  scheduled 
production  of  90,596,  and  involved  a  total  liability  of  $195,833,708.33 
Actually,  however,  fewer  than  3,000  houses  34  were  produced  under 
these  contracts,  a  disappointingly  small  total  which  reflects  the  fact 
that  many  of  the  companies  did  not  get  into  production  before  their 
contracts  were  terminated  or,  in  some  cases,  canceled  by  mutual 
consent.35  The  net  loss  to  the  government  was  about  $3,000,000,36 
about  1%%  of  the  total  liability  and  well  below  the  specified  limit, 
but  in  light  of  the  production  that  resulted,  the  program  can  hardly 
be  called  anything  but  a  failure.  A  redeeming  point  was  its  assist- 

32  The  balance  of  54  did  not  receive  contracts  for  various  reasons,  including 
the  following: 

( 1 )  Not  enough  experience. 

(2)  Insufficient  equity  to  qualify  for  RFC  loan— therefore  had  no  funds. 

(3)  House  not  technically  acceptable. 

(4)  Design  too  costly,  used  too  much  critical  material. 

(5)  Unable  to  obtain  plant  or  equipment. 

(6)  Showed  only  initial  interest— did  not  follow  up  with  necessary  papers. 

83  Source:  OHE  official  records,  reviewed  June  1,  1948,  by  the  Bemis  Founda 
tion. 

34  Source:  loc.  cit. 

35  The  magazine  Business  Week  (December  11,  1948),  p.  25,  covering  the 
marketing  and  finance  problems  of  prefabricators,  stated  that  only  six  out  of  32 
companies  which  secured  guaranteed  market  contracts  or  loan  agreements  through 
RFC  were  still  turning  out  houses. 

36  Source:  OHE  estimate,  given  to  the  Bemis  Foundation,  June  1,  1948. 


ance  in  the  formation  of  several  enterprises  which  may  have  a 
stimulating  influence  on  the  development  of  the  industry. 

The  underwriting  of  loans  was  the  third  of  the  financial  mechanisms 
by  which  the  government  sought  to  help  prefabricators  obtain  capi 
tal.  This  program  was  initiated  on  July  1,  1947,  when  Congress,  by 
amendment  of  the  National  Housing  Act  ( Section  609 ) ,  provided  for 
federal  insurance  of  working  capital  loans.  These  could  be  for  as 
much  as  90%  of  the  necessary  current  cost  of  manufacturing  the 
house  (package),  exclusive  of  profit.  In  principle,  this  extension  of 
FHA  operations  had  its  counterpart  in  the  FHA  Title  VI  program 
for  conventional  construction  under  which  were  insured  the  construc 
tion  loans  used  in  financing  homebuilding  at  the  site.  Since  con 
struction  loans  for  conventional  building  were  being  insured  only  if 
the  permanent  financing  for  the  home  had  been  arranged,  a  pro 
duction  loan  under  Section  609  was  to  be  insured  only  if  the  pre- 
fabricator  submitted  binding  purchase  contracts  as  collateral  evidence 
of  sale  and  ability  to  pay  for  houses  manufactured  with  the  proceeds 
of  the  loan. 

By  April  30,  1948,  when  the  original  form  of  the  Title  VI  program 
expired,  24  applications  for  Section  609  loans  had  been  received. 
Only  one  company,  however  (Housemart,  Inc.),  had  actually  ob 
tained  an  insured  loan,  and  this  was  for  the  production  of  194 
houses.  Why,  it  may  be  asked,  were  so  few  houses  financed  under 
this  program  during  the  10  months  it  was  in  effect?  Part  of  the 
answer  to  this  question  lies  in  the  difficulty  of  judging  the  technical 
merits  of  an  applicant's  product  by  a  review  of  plans  and  specifica 
tions,  and  by  examining  and  testing  a  hand-made  prototype  not  pro 
duced  under  conditions  to  be  expected  in  full  production.  Part  of 
the  answer  lies  in  the  length  of  time  required  to  investigate  all  those 
other  aspects  of  the  applicant's  business  operations  which  the  FHA 
considered  it  necessary  to  investigate— the  borrower's  plant  facilities, 
financial  condition,  manufacturing  costs,  marketing  plans,  etc.  But, 
to  the  largest  extent,  the  answer  involves  the  "binding  purchase 
contract"  which  the  prefabricator  was  required  to  show  before  he 
could  obtain  a  loan.  Section  609  did  not  define  such  a  contract  in 
specific  terms,  and  certain  applicants  for  loans  were  led  to  criticize 
the  FHA's  interpretation  of  the  phrase,  which  was  cautious  and  con 
servative.  In  effect,  the  FHA  did  not  wish  to  be  involved  in  insur 
ing  the  marketability  of  the  houses;  it  wished  to  make  certain  that 
they  were  not  being  produced  for  an  unknown  market.  No  loan  was 
approved  for  insurance  unless  the  dealer-erector  involved  in  the 
purchase  contract  could  show  that  he  had  the  necessary  cash  in 

166 


hand  or  arranged  for,  which  meant  that  he  must  have  arranged  the 
permanent  financing  for  the  houses  before  the  fabrication  process 
could  start.  Many  housing  manufacturers  held  that  this  was  an 
unrealistic  requirement,  that  it  was  not  practicable  to  make  these 
financing  arrangements  so  far  in  advance  of  delivery  of  the  houses. 

The  housing  manufacturers  feel  that  FHA  will  be  fully  protected  if  by  the 
time  the  houses  are  to  be  delivered  under  a  purchase  contract,  the  pur 
chaser  is  required  to  have  the  cash  for  payment  on  delivery,  or  to  have 
financing  arranged  which  assures  the  payment  of  the  balance  due  under 
the  contract.87 

It  is  clear  that  one  issue  involved  here  is  the  extent  and  nature 
of  risk  contemplated  by  Congress  when  it  enacted  Section  609.  But 
whatever  the  pros  and  cons  of  FHA  policies  in  regard  to  this  pro 
gram,  it  remains  a  fact  that,  in  its  original  form,  it  fell  far  short  of 
its  objectives,  and  changes  were  introduced  into  Section  609  when  it 
was  reenacted  along  with  other  elements  of  the  FHA's  Title  VI 
program  in  the  Housing  Act  of  1948.38 

In  this  new  form  Section  609  authorized  insurance  of  loans  for  the 
manufacture  of  prefabricated  house  packages  on  the  basis  of  con 
tracts  (for  the  purchase  of  these  packages)  which  provide  for  pay 
ment  of  the  purchase  price  within  30  days  after  delivery  of  the 
houses,  or  payment  of  20%  of  the  purchase  price  on  or  before  delivery 
if  the  institution  making  the  loan  to  the  manufacturer  accepts  and 
discounts  a  promissory  note  for  the  unpaid  balance  payable  within 
180  days  from  the  delivery  date.  In  addition  to  insuring  loans  to 
finance  the  production  of  house  packages,  the  new  Section  included 
provisions  for  short-term  financing  of  dealer-erectors  by  authorizing 
the  FHA  to  insure  the  lending  institution  against  losses  sustained  in 
accepting  and  discounting  promissory  notes  of  purchasers  represent 
ing  the  unpaid  purchase  price  of  the  packages.  These  notes  could 
not  exceed  80%  of  the  purchase  price,  nor  could  they  have  a  ma 
turity  in  excess  of  180  days. 

A  further  feature  of  great  importance  was  also  added:  the  manu 
facturer  was  permitted  to  substitute  new  purchase  contracts  as  security 
on  the  loan  in  place  of  contracts  which  had  been  performed.  This, 
in  effect,  made  the  principal  amount  of  the  loan  a  revolving  fund  for 

37  ( Our  italics. )      Statement  by  Nathan  Wendell,  Vice-President  of  the  Na 
tional  Association  of  Housing  Manufacturers  and  Vice-President  of  General  Panel 
Corporation  of  California,  given  before  the  Joint  Committee  on  Housing,  80th 
Congress,  1st  Session  (Study  and  Investigation  of  Housing,  Part  5,  p.  5,062). 

38  Public  Law  901,  approved  August  10,  1948. 

167 


financing  the   production   of   additional   houses   above   the   number 
stated  in  the  original  loan  agreement. 


IV.  Public  Relations 


Public  relations  has  been  an  important  problem  of  the  prefabricator 
for  more  than  a  decade.  Before  the  war  it  was  principally  a  matter 
of  overcoming  consumer  prejudice  against  novelty  in  the  design  of 
the  house.  Since  the  war  it  has  more  frequently  been  a  question 
of  correcting  the  impression  that  prefabricated  houses  are  temporary 
dwellings  which  are  structurally  inadequate. 

Public  attitudes  have  exerted  their  influence  not  only  in  consumer 
resistance,  but  also  in  active  and  organized  opposition  to  the  erection 
of  prefabricated  houses  in  certain  communities.  A  typical  example 
was  the  trouble  encountered  in  1947  when  an  attempt  was  made  to 
erect  in  Natick,  Mass.,  a  suburb  of  Boston,  a  house  produced  by 
Winner  Manufacturing  Company,  Inc.,  under  license  from  Shelter 
Industries,  Inc.  The  house  was  of  modern  design  and  stressed  skin 
plywood  construction.  A  building  permit  had  been  granted  and 
erection  was  under  way  when  a  group  of  neighbors,  fearing  that 
their  property  values  would  be  seriously  endangered,  brought  pres 
sure  on  the  building  inspector  to  revoke  the  permit  which  he  had 
already  issued.  After  appeal  to  a  special  emergency  board  which 
had  been  set  up  in  Massachusetts,  and  a  consideration  of  this  appeal 
mechanism  by  the  courts,  the  permit  was  finally  granted.  Such  were 
the  difficulties  and  the  character  of  public  opinion,  however,  that 
the  company  later  turned  its  attention  to  other  areas  with  a  modified 
design. 

One  indication  of  the  importance  of  public  relations  to  the  pre 
fabricator  is  the  considerable  number  of  firms,  18,  which  our  survey 
found  using  public  relations  agencies  or  counselors.  There  has  been, 
of  course,  a  great  deal  of  free  publicity  given  to  prefabricators  in  all 
types  of  communication  media,  and  this  is,  perhaps  more  than  any 
thing  else,  a  reflection  of  the  keen  interest  of  the  public  in  anything 
which  might  help  solve  the  housing  problem.  Much  of  this  publicity 
has  been  the  wildest  sort  of  fantasy,  however,  and  much  more  has 

168 


been  entirely  premature;  it  has  probably  done  the  industry  more  harm 
than  good. 

Because  some  unquestionably  poor  houses  have  been  produced  by 
prefabricators  and  because  some  of  the  most  widely  publicized  ven 
tures  have  come  to  naught,  many  firms  have  sought  to  distinguish 
themselves  from  the  rest  of  the  field  by  means  of  carefully  directed 
advertising  campaigns.  Some  do  cooperative  advertising  with  their 
dealers,  splitting  the  cost,  so  that  they  can  control  the  content  and 
quality  of  the  ads.  Others  seek  to  avoid  identification  with  prefabri- 
cation  entirely  by  disclaiming  any  resemblance  to  all  that  has  gone  by 
that  name,  by  designing  and  erecting  their  houses  so  that  they  can 
not  be  distinguished  from  the  conventional  product,  or  by  employing 
such  terms  as  "prebuilt,"  "pre-engineered,"  "manufactured  homes." 
There  is,  in  fact,  strong  support  for  the  abandonment  of  the  term 
"prefabrication"  in  favor  of  "house  manufacturing"  or  "home  manu 
facturing."  The  use  of  the  seal  of  the  Prefabricated  Home  Manufac 
turers'  Institute  is  another  means  by  which  some  companies  have 
sought  to  create  a  reputation  of  soundness  for  their  products.  And 
a  very  influential  factor  in  establishing  a  prefabricator's  reputation 
for  quality  is  the  approval  of  his  house  for  mortgage  insurance  by 
the  FHA. 

Mass  distribution  through  brand-name  selling  is  one  of  the  im 
portant  potential  advantages  offered  by  prefabrication.  This  is  recog 
nized  in  varying  degrees  by  most  prefabricators  and  has  been  heavily 
stressed  by  a  few.  As  the  housing  market  has  changed,  and  as  the 
scope  of  the  marketing  problem  has  come  to  be  recognized  in  the 
past  few  years,  there  has  been  increasing  emphasis  on  the  selling  ef 
fort  required  and  on  the  advertising  that  must  be  a  part  of  the  dis 
tribution  pattern.  Most  firms  engage  in  some  form  of  advertising 
in  addition  to  their  descriptive  brochures,  usually  in  local  newspapers 
and  in  trade  journals;  a  few  firms,  like  Lustron,  Adirondack  Log  Cabin, 
and  National  Homes,  have  also  done  magazine  advertising  on  a  nation 
wide  basis.  But  it  is  probably  a  fair  generalization  that  the  develop 
ment  of  brand-name  selling  through  advertising  has  not  yet  been 
carried  beyond  the  initial  stages  by  the  vast  majority  of  prefabricators. 


169 


V.  Trade  Associations 


There  are  at  present  two  trade  associations  functioning  in  the  in 
dustry,  the  Prefabricated  Home  Manufacturers'  Institute39  and  the 
National  Association  of  Housing  Manufacturers.40  These  differ  quite 
markedly  in  their  membership,  policies,  and  activities. 


A.  Prefabricated  Home  Manufacturers'  Institute 


The  need  for  an  association  of  prefabricators  in  1942  led  a  half- 
dozen  of  the  industry's  pioneers  to  form  the  Prefabricated  Home 
Manufacturers'  Association.  In  1943  the  Association  renamed  itself 
an  Institute,  there  being  12  charter  members.  By  January  1946  mem 
bership  included  30  companies,  and  in  the  boom  days  of  early  1947 
it  reached  a  peak  of  67.  In  mid-1948  membership  was  stabilizing  at 
46.  While  membership  is  not  limited  to  users  of  specific  materials, 
PHMI  is  largely  comprised  of  those  firms  which  work  in  wood  (in 
cluding  plywood),  and  which  have  approached  most  aspects  of  pre- 
fabrication  with  what  might  best  be  called  a  conservative  attitude. 
Among  the  companies  which  have  been  most  active  in  the  organiza 
tion  are  Gunnison  Homes,  Inc.,  National  Homes  Corporation,  Pease 
Woodwork  Company,  Inc.,  American  Houses,  Inc.,  Southern  Mill 
&  Manufacturing  Co.,  The  Green  Lumber  Company,  Houston  Ready- 
Cut  House  Co.,  Crawford  Corporation,  Ivon  R.  Ford,  Inc.,  Page  and 
Hill  Co.,  Harnischfeger  Corporation,  and  Johnson  Quality  Homes, 
Inc.  The  PHMI  staff  includes  a  manager,  a  public  relations  man, 
and  a  statistician  and  cost  accountant.  Harry  H.  Steidle,  who  heads 
the  staff,  was  for  five  years  Washington  representative  for  the  Douglas 
Fir  Plywood  Association  and  active  in  other  trade  association  work 
before  joining  PHMI.  Some  years  previously,  he  was  Assistant  Chief 

39  908  20th  St.,  N.W.,  Washington,  D.  C. 

*o  1028  Connecticut  Ave.,  N.W.,  Washington,  D.  C. 

Although  the  Douglas  Fir  Plywood  Association  is  not,  properly  speaking,  in 
the  industry,  it  should  be  mentioned  here  because  of  its  promotional  activities 
in  behalf  of  prefabrication  since  1938.  The  Association  regards  prefabricated 
houses  as  an  important  long-run  market  for  plywood  and  has  published  several 
booklets  to  further  this  type  of  construction. 

170 


of  the  Division  of  Trade  Standards  in  the  National  Bureau  of 
Standards. 

PHMI  maintains  about  a  dozen  standing  committees,  the  most  im 
portant  of  which  deal  with  industry  promotion,  marketing,  employer- 
employee  relations,  technical  problems,  accounting  and  statistics,  ma 
terials,  and  government  relations.  The  accounting  and  statistics  com 
mittee  has  made  some  progress  towards  having  a  uniform  cost-ac 
counting  system  adopted  by  member  companies,  while  the  technical 
committee  has  developed  a  set  of  performance  standards  for  prefabri 
cated  houses  which  was  published  as  Commercial  Standard  125-45  by 
the  National  Bureau  of  Standards.41  In  addition,  the  technical  com 
mittee  has  worked  with  building-code  officials  in  various  sections  of 
the  country  in  order  to  reduce  the  code  conflicts  facing  the  industry. 

In  its  public  relations  role,  PHMI  furnishes  information  to  the  press 
and  interested  individuals  and  represents  the  membership  at  builders' 
conventions  and  similar  meetings.  The  Institute's  advertising  cam 
paign,  with  its  use  of  a  seal  and  its  emphasis  on  quality  standards, 
has  been  an  important  part  of  this  program.  Members  receive  a 
weekly  newsletter  which  presents  an  excellent  summary  of  housing 
activity  and  pertinent  legislation,  occasional  generalized  reports  on 
the  operations  of  member  companies,  and  other  news  of  interest. 
Conventions  are  held  several  times  a  year  and  provide  an  opportunity 
for  the  exchange  of  information. 

Naturally,  an  important  function  of  the  Washington  office  has  been 
to  represent  the  interests  of  member  companies  and,  when  appropri 
ate,  the  industry  as  a  whole,  in  the  various  federal  agencies  connected 
with  housing  and  before  committees  of  Congress.  During  the  Vet 
erans'  Emergency  Housing  Program,  when  the  government  allocated 
materials  and  controlled  prices,  this  function  was  particularly  im 
portant.  The  attitude  of  PHMI  towards  a  government  program  for 
prefabricators,  however,  has  rather  consistently  opposed  special  aids. 
The  organization  was  against  many  elements  of  the  Wyatt  program 
on  the  grounds  that  they  would  bring  into  existence  many  get-rich- 
quick  firms  which  could  not  last  but  which  would  impair  the  indus 
try's  reputation  and  credit  standing.  This  attitude  has  been  strength 
ened  recently  with  the  failure  of  inexperienced  government-financed 
firms,  which  resulted  in  the  general  loss  of  confidence  in  the  industry 
in  some  banking  circles.  While  PHMI  has  opposed  guaranteed 
markets,  RFC  loans,  and  the  Housing  Act  of  1949,  it  has  fought  for 

41 A  second  edition,  Commercial  Standard  CS 125-47,  was  published  in  No 
vember  1947. 

171 


liberal  mortgage  financing  under  Title  VI  and  for  stability  and  con 
sistency  in  federal  housing  legislation  so  that  long-range  plans  could 
be  made  by  those  in  the  business  of  providing  homes. 


B.  National  Association  of  Housing  Manufacturers 


Founded  in  February  1947,  NAHM  from  the  start  emphasized  the 
use  of  modern  methods  and  improved  building  materials  and  tech 
niques.  Its  efforts  have  been  largely  directed  towards  the  new  firms 
in  the  industry  which  have  been  using  unconventional  materials  and 
new  designs.  The  organization  was  not  designed  to  serve  as  a  public 
relations  front,  and  so  it  has  avoided  publicity  as  much  as  possible, 
although  it  has  testified  at  hearings. 

The  primary  purpose  has  been  to  help  secure  the  necessary  legisla 
tion  and  regulations  to  make  available  the  government  assistance 
which  these  companies  require,  including  loans  for  working  capital 
and  the  marketing  of  houses,  priorities  and  allocations  of  materials, 
and  mortgage  financing  for  the  completed  houses.  In  this  connection, 
NAHM  representatives  have  testified  before  various  Congressional 
committees  as  well  as  committees  and  agencies  within  the  executive 
branch  of  the  government,  such  as,  for  example,  the  Office  of  Indus 
try  Cooperation  of  the  Department  of  Commerce,  where  the  volun 
tary  allocations  program  has  been  administered.  NAHM  has  been 
of  considerable  influence  in  securing  the  legislation  and  assistance  re 
quired  by  the  industry,  but  in  general  it  has  remained  in  the  back 
ground. 

The  membership  has  varied  from  time  to  time,  and  a  number  of 
non-member  companies  have  participated  in  the  meetings.  Attend 
ing  these  have  been  as  many  as  15-20  companies,  among  which  were 
a  few  producers  of  new-type  housing  materials.  Among  the  com 
panies  which  have  been  most  active  in  the  Association  have  been 
Lustron,  whose  President,  Carl  Strandlund,  was  the  initiating  force 
behind  the  Association  and  has  been  its  President  from  the  beginning; 
General  Panel,  whose  President,  Abel  Wohlstetter,  is  the  Vice-Presi- 
dent  of  the  Association;  and  Reliance,  whose  President,  Harry  Nagin, 
is  also  a  Vice-President  of  the  Association.  Counsel  is  David  L. 
Krooth,  former  General  Counsel  of  the  National  Housing  Agency  and 
of  the  Housing  Expediter. 

NAHM  thinks  of  itself  as  representing  the  producers  of  industrial 
ized  or  machine-made  housing,  rather  than  the  prefabricators,  who, 

172 


it  holds,  are  for  the  most  part  still  working  in  conventional  materials 
in  the  conventionally  inefficient  way.  Its  policies  and  actions  reflect 
the  problems  of  some  of  the  youngest  firms  in  the  industry  who  be 
lieve  in  new  materials  and  methods  and  have  built  up  higri  produc 
tion  capacities.  If  prefabrication  is  to  mean  revolution,  these  are  the 
revolutionaries,  and  their  Association  is  well  versed  in  the  new  skills 
of  securing  programs  of  government  assistance  for  enterprises  likely 
to  be  of  public  benefit. 


173 


Part      J_  X  • 

7 


Chapter 


DESIGN 


I.  Introduction 


Prefabricators  of  houses  in  the  United  States  during  the  period  of 
study  by  no  means  pursued  the  same  goals.  Their  diversity  of  inter 
ests  is  reflected  in  their  approach  to  design.  To  some  this  term  meant 
structural  engineering;  to  others  it  meant  production  engineering;  to 
a  few  it  meant  architecture;  and  to  many  it  meant  sales  appeal.  The 
term  properly  includes  all  these  aspects,  and  many  others,  for  a  de 
cision  made  in  any  part  of  the  long  operational  channel  which  leads 
from  raw  materials  to  completed  houses  may  have  an  important 
effect  on  the  design  of  the  house  itself. 

Considering  the  term  as  broadly  as  this,  one  might  with  some 
justification  say  that  this  entire  book  is  a  discussion  of  factors  which 
should  influence  design.  As  used  in  this  chapter,  however,  the  word 
means  something  narrower  and  more  concrete.  Described  here  in 
some  detail  are  the  different  products  which  were  made  by  the  com 
panies  studied,  with  some  reference  to  the  techniques  by  which  they 
were  made.  This,  then,  is  design,  in  the  terms  of  plans  and  specifica 
tions,  and  as  defined  by  production  systems. 

That  the  subject  does  not  lend  itself  to  simple  treatment  can  be 
illustrated  on  the  one  hand  by  the  millions  of  dollars  spent  by 
Lustron  before  even  starting  production,  and  on  the  other  hand  by 
the  small  company  which,  in  answer  to  our  request  for  information, 
reported  that  it  had  been  so  busy  getting  into  production  that  it  had 
had  no  time  to  make  plans  and  specifications. 

In  large  part,  differences  in  design  stemmed  from  differences  in 
basic  approach  to  prefabrication.  The  type  of  market  sought,  the 
house  planned  for  that  market,  the  scheme  for  the  production  of  that 
house— all  these  things  varied  tremendously,  and  it  would  be  a  fasci 
nating  study  to  analyze  the  reasons  of  background,  experience,  intui 
tion,  and  prejudice  which  could  lead  to  such  differences  among  pro 
ducers  in  the  same  general  field. 

One  generalization  may  safely  be  made,  however:  the  fundamental 
decisions  upon  which  these  different  schemes  were  based  were  rarely 
the  result  of  a  thorough  investigation  of  the  whole  problem;  they 
did  not  come  as  the  result  of  careful  research.  Whether  research 
had  a  separate  existence  or  was  in  effect  just  another  of  the  responsi 
bilities  of  the  top  management,  its  scope  seems  to  have  been  largely 

177 


limited  to  the  improvement  of  detail,  the  saving  of  material,  and  the 
speeding  of  operations. 

The  average  prefabricator  seemed  to  think  a  great  deal  harder  about 
the  details  of  his  design  after  it  had  been  adopted  and  was  going  into 
the  production  or  even  the  marketing  phase  than  he  had  in  the  first 
place  about  the  broad  principles  upon  which  the  design  was  based. 
This  is  perhaps  understandable,  since  time,  energy,  and  money  for 
broad  analysis  are  often  very  limited  once  operations  are  under  way, 
while  in  the  early  stages  of  organization  and  design  the  problems  of 
financing  and  of  creating  a  production  and  distribution  system  tend 
to  seem  very  small  and  remote.  When  the  realization  comes  that  the 
first  step  in  the  pattern  of  operations  should  have  been  altered  in 
order  better  to  perform  the  last,  the  die  has  been  cast. 

In  many  cases,  the  prefabricators  set  out  to  do  little  more  than 
produce  a  conventional  wood  frame  house  by  somewhat  different 
methods  and  for  about  the  same  price,  the  new  methods  being  under 
taken  solely  from  the  point  of  view  of  reducing  production  costs.  De 
sign  efforts  were  concentrated  on  the  selection  of  materials,  of  fabri 
cation  procedures,  and  of  packaging,  shipping,  and  erection  tech 
niques.  In  time,  and  with  a  large  enough  volume  of  business,  such 
producers  might  hope  to  sell  a  better  house  for  less  money.  At  pres 
ent  they  would  say  more  often  that  they  are  selling  a  better  value  for 
the  same  money. 

A  larger  group  have  set  out  to  simplify  the  design  as  well  as  the 
construction  of  this  conventional  house,  so  that  it  might  be  easier  to 
build,  ship,  and  erect,  and  at  least  as  good.  Frequently  these  pre 
fabricators  have  attempted  to  improve  the  space  arrangements,  the 
details,  the  appearance,  and  the  general  architectural  design  of  the 
houses  they  build.  But  they  have  not  usually  moved  in  this  direction 
beyond  their  ideas  of  current  public  acceptance,  or  perhaps  beyond 
their  interpretation  of  the  ideas  of  public  acceptance  currently  held 
by  mortgage  bankers.  The  industry  well  knows  that  it  sells  its 
houses  to  bankers  rather  than  to  purchasers;  broad  circulation 
is  given  to  reports  of  companies  which  have  brought  out  houses  of 
radically  simplified  or  of  purportedly  modern  design,  only  to  fail  or 
lose  money  as  a  result.  There  have  been  such  cases,  and  some  justi 
fication  exists  for  the  feeling  that  good  modern  design  does  not  carry 
with  it  the  strong  sales  appeal  that  the  predictions  of  the  war  years 
had  attributed  to  it.  In  several  cases  x  prefabricators  were  forced  to 
stop  production  on  models  which  had  been  given  much  favorable 

1  For  example:  Shelter  Industries,  Green's  Ready-Built. 

178 


comment  in  architectural  magazines  in  favor  of  models  of  far  more 
conventional  appearance. 

Among  the  prefabricators  there  were  a  few,  as  there  have  been  all 
through  the  years,  who  approached  the  problem  with  a  real  determina 
tion  to  seek  out  the  basic  facts  of  housing  design  and  to  strike  out  be 
yond  the  limitations  of  conventional  methods.  Of  these  pioneers, 
some  strove  for  what  has  been  called  in  England  "austere"  shelter: 
smaller  houses,  simpler  in  plan  and  construction,  of  less  expensive 
materials,  and  more  highly  organized  in  their  various  functions  than 
the  conventional  house  ordinarily  thought  of  as  "minimum."  These 
schemes  were  based  upon  a  desire  to  find  some  sort  of  decent  shelter 
which  might  be  made  available  to  a  wide  range  of  low-income  fami 
lies.  There  were  also  schemes  based  upon  emergency  conditions  and 
designed  for  temporary  or  at  most  periodic  use;  schemes  of  this  sort 
were  often  designed  for  use  in  war  production  areas.  Still  others  re 
sulted  from  the  attempt  to  achieve  a  high  degree  of  mobility,  with 
the  consequent  desire  to  cut  the  weight  and  bulk  to  be  moved  (a  few 
turned  their  attention  frankly  to  the  problems  of  the  house  trailer), 
or  from  the  desire  to  capitalize  on  the  possibilities  of  obtaining  a  high 
degree  of  elasticity  by  means  of  a  very  standardized  production 
system. 

Some  of  these  departures  from  the  conventional  were  very  radical 
indeed,  based  on  the  theory  that  true  mass  production  will  eventually 
have  to  make  use  of  metals  rather  than  wood,  aimed  at  the  exploita 
tion  of  some  new  use  of  metals  or  other  materials,  or  guided  by  the 
determined  effort  to  rationalize  the  whole  structural  theory  of  mass 
production  of  houses. 

The  most  familiar  example  of  such  a  pioneering  approach  was  Buck- 
minster  Fuller's  hemispherical  aluminum  house,  a  structure  of  true 
stressed  skin  design  making  extensive  use  of  metals  in  tension  rather 
than  in  compression,  although  as  a  production,  erection,  and  sales 
proposition  it  was  perhaps  foredoomed  to  failure.  From  an  entirely 
different  point  of  view  unconventional  design  principles  were  ex 
plored  through  the  work  of  Wallace  Neff,  whose  gunite  structures 
were  built  up  over  balloon  forms,  and  of  R.  G.  LeTourneau,  whose 
gigantic  traveling  forms  were  capable  of  carrying  complete  concrete 
houses,  poured  in  one  operation,  and  placing  them  at  the  selected 
site. 

The  similarity  to  conventional  construction  stood  out  more  than 
any  degree  of  innovation,  however.  This  is  not  necessarily  a  criticism, 
for  construction  has  moved  forward,  and  the  conventional  house  of 

179 


today  has  many  features  of  design  and  construction  which  differ  from 
those  of  the  conventional  house  of  only  a  few  years  ago. 


II.  Classification  of  Prefabrication  Systems 


Methods  of  classifying  prefabricated  houses  are  as  varied  as  the 
purposes  of  those  making  the  classifications.  The  general  public  is 
probably  most  interested  in  size  and  price,  but  these  are  also  the 
most  variable  of  characteristics  and  the  least  suited  to  broad  analysis. 
Architectural  style  is  perhaps  the  next  mest  popular  basis  of  classi 
fication,  and  it  will  be  discussed  briefly  later;  attention  will  also  be 
devoted  to  classification  by  structural  system.  First  of  all,  however, 
attention  is  given  to  classification  by  the  principal  materials  used  in 
the  house,  since  this  offers  the  opportunity  for  a  brief  description  of 
the  characteristic  qualities  of  the  various  materials  for  prefabrication 
purposes  and  thus  provides  a  general  background  for  the  systematic 
analysis  which  follows. 


A.  By  Materials 

Materials  have  been  chosen  for  ease  of  procurement  and  use,  for 
adaptability  to  the  prefabricated  pattern  of  operations,  and  for  tech 
nical  satisfaction  of  normal  performance  requirements,  the  special 
qualities  required  in  materials  by  most  prefabricators  being  light 
weight,  strength,  wearing  quality,  adaptability  to  normal  fabrication 
and  transportation  methods,  and  as  low  cost  as  possible. 


1.  Wood  Lumber  and  Plywood 

By  far  the  largest  group  of  prefabricators  at  the  time  of  the  survey 
used  wood  as  the  principal  structural  material.  Of  the  companies 
studied,  92  used  wood,  and,  of  these,  61  used  plywood. 

180 


The  development  of  plywood  construction  systems  by  the  U.  S. 
Forest  Products  Laboratory  and  others  had,  in  fact,  a  large  influence 
on  the  growth  of  prefabrication  as  a  whole.  The  material  is  very 
light  and  strong,  is  extremely  stiff,  has  some  insulation  value,  comes 
in  large  sheets  readily  adapted  to  mass-production  uses,  has  fairly 
good  dimensional  stability,  and  is  reasonably  durable  and  low  in 
cost.  It  can  be  used  to  combine  several  different  functions;  for  ex 
ample,  a  single  sheet  can  be  both  surface  and  structural  sheathing  on 
the  outside,  or  both  surface  and  wallboard  on  the  inside. 

Nearly  all  the  companies  using  plywood  used  Douglas  Fir  rotary- 
cut  veneer,  although  a  few  used  other  types,  such  as  gumwood  and 
yellow  pine  plywood,  edge-grain  fir  panels  for  flooring,  or  oak  ply 
wood  for  flooring.  Some  of  the  problems  involved  in  using  this 
material  are  discussed  in  Chapter  9.  Its  steady  rise  in  cost  has  been 
discouraging  to  many  manufacturers,  but  most  of  them  felt  that  it  was 
the  best  material  available  for  their  needs. 

Wood  lumber,  traditional  material  for  domestic  construction  in 
most  parts  of  the  United  States,  enjoyed  great  popularity  among  the 
prefabricators,  particularly  because  of  its  wide  public  acceptance  and 
the  long  experience  of  builders  in  making  houses  of  it.  From  the 
point  of  view  of  design,  members  fabricated  from  wood  generally 
have  the  necessary  strength,  rigidity,  and  thermal-insulation  value  at 
a  suitable  cost,  although  the  material  offers  certain  complications  in 
the  factory  (discussed  in  Chapter  9).  Wood  lumber,  in  other  than 
shop  grades,  was  in  fairly  good  supply  at  the  time  of  the  survey,  and 
its  initial  cost  was  low  compared  to  that  of  other  materials.  Its  char 
acter  as  a  handicraft  material  was  actually  desirable  in  the  opinion 
of  most  prefabricators,  who  dealt  with  a  few  houses  at  a  time  rather 
than  mass  production,  and  who  had  frequent  occasion  to  change 
shapes  and  sizes  to  fit  evolving  needs.2 


2.  Steel 

Steel  is  the  basic  manufacturing  material  of  United  States  industry, 
and  there  have  been  many  attempts  to  use  it  for  the  manufacture  of 
low-cost  housing.  Of  the  companies  in  the  survey,  13  used  steel  as  a 

2  For  a  very  complete  discussion  of  the  use  of  wood  and  plywood  for  this  pur 
pose,  see  Manual  on  Wood  Construction  for  Prefabricated  Houses,  prepared  by 
the  Forest  Products  Laboratory  in  collaboration  with  HHFA  (Washington,  1947). 

181 


basic  material  in  their  structure.  Of  these,  three  used  steel  in  com 
bination  with  wood  and  three  in  combination  with  aluminum. 

In  housing  design,  steel  has  many  disadvantages  to  counter  its 
known  advantages.  Its  thermal  conductivity  is  more  than  300  times 
that  of  wood  so  that  careful  attention  must  be  paid  to  problems  of 
heat  loss  and  condensation.  Its  tendency  to  rust  means  that  it  must 
be  carefully  protected  from  contact  with  oxidizing  atmospheres,  and 
this  raises  costs.  Its  uniformity  and  strength  are  very  high  but  diffi 
cult  to  exploit  to  the  fullest  degree,  so  that  much  steel  is  often  wasted 
in  overdesign.  Occasionally,  there  is  further  waste  in  pointless  imi 
tation  of  wood  design.  Further,  its  use  requires  special  attention  to 
problems  of  sound  transmission  and  reflection.  Nevertheless  the 
cost  of  steel  and  its  adaptability  to  manufacturing  techniques  will 
doubtless  continue  to  appeal  to  designers.  In  special  forms,  such  as 
the  porcelain  enameled  steel  used  by  Higgins  and  Lustron,  it  may 
have  a  new  order  of  general  sales  appeal  as  well  as  improved  physical 
properties. 

In  the  last  two  decades,  despite  a  great  deal  of  experimentation 
with  different  steel  designs  in  this  country,  there  has  not  been  so 
wide  an  experience  with  actual  fabrication  and  use  as  in  England. 
Recently,  however,  there  is  an  increasing  tendency  among  even  the 
more  conventional  prefabricators  to  use  steel  for  members  in  hori 
zontal  position  which  carry  loads  over  fairly  large  spans,  such  as 
floor  joists. 


3.  Aluminum 

Of  the  companies  in  the  survey,  10  made  use  of  aluminum  as  a 
major  structural  material,  either  as  framing  or  as  exterior  structural 
covering.  Many  others  were  interested  in  the  possibilities  of  its  use 
because  the  expansion  of  aluminum  production  facilities  during  the 
war  period  had  given  hope  of  abundant  supply,  particularly  of  sheet 
aluminum  such  as  is  used  in  aircraft,  and  of  a  lowering  of  price. 

Aluminum  has  some  of  the  disadvantages  of  steel,  including  a  par 
ticularly  high  thermal  conductivity,  but  it  has  certain  advantages  for 
housing  purposes,  including  a  positive  value  as  reflective  insulation 
and  a  strong  resistance  to  serious  corrosion  under  normal  atmospheric 
conditions.  Although  it  can  be  welded  only  with  some  difficulty  and 
must  be  formed  with  careful  attention  to  its  properties,  aluminum  is 
suited  to  many  industrial  techniques.  More  expensive  than  steel, 

182 


pound  for  pound,  it  is  often  competitive  with  that  metal  when  prop 
erly  designed,  processed,  put  in  place,  and  protected.  Care  must  be 
taken  in  the  use  of  aluminum,  however,  because  electrolytic  action 
takes  place  between  it  and  steel,  and  because  it  is  subject  to  attack  by 
free  lime  in  concrete. 

As  in  the  case  of  steel,  although  there  has  been  a  great  deal  of  ex 
perimentation  in  the  United  States  with  aluminum  construction,  and 
although  the  aluminum  manufacturers  are  marketing  an  increasing 
number  of  products  for  use  in  houses,  the  largest  production  ex 
perience  with  aluminum  houses  has  been  in  England,  where  the  air 
craft  industry  has  been  producing  well-designed  units  in  quantity 
since  the  war. 


4.  Concrete 

Generally  speaking,  prefabricators  consider  wet-process  materials 
unsuited  to  mass-production  methods,  although  there  are  exceptions, 
as  when  such  special  fabrication  machines  as  the  Tournalayer  are  used, 
in  which  case  the  production  interest  centers  in  the  machine  rather 
than  the  houses.  Yet,  of  the  companies  in  the  survey,  10  used  con 
crete  as  a  major  structural  material,  eight  of  these  using  it  in  the 
form  of  precast  concrete  slabs.  Concrete  may  have  distinct  advantage 
over  other  materials  in  original  materials  cost,  but  its  disadvantages 
of  weight,  bulk,  and  frangibility  have  limited  its  use  primarily  to 
group  erections  close  to  the  production  point  of  the  slabs.  In  this 
country,  where  wood  and  steel  are  still  available  at  relatively  low 
cost,  concrete  construction  has  been  by  no  means  so  widely  studied 
and  so  carefully  utilized  as  in  countries  where  other  materials  are 
almost  out  of  the  question  for  housing. 

In  recent  years  lightweight  aggregates  and  foamed  concretes  have 
become  increasingly  important,  since  they  lighten  the  slabs  and  im 
prove  the  otherwise  poor  thermal-insulation  qualities  of  concrete.  A 
great  deal  of  effort  has  also  been  expended  to  improve  physical  quali 
ties  and  speed  up  the  production  cycle  by  steam  curing  and  vacuum 
processes,  and  to  reduce  the  expense  of  mixing,  pouring,  and  forming 
equipment  in  relation  to  the  quantity  of  production  achieved.  Pre- 
stressed  concrete  shows  promise  of  achieving  two  or  three  times  the 
strength  of  ordinary  concrete  with  the  same  weight  of  material  and  is 
being  more  generally  used  in  the  construction  industry,  but  all  these 

183 


processes  are  still  relatively  strange  to  the  single-family-house  market, 
with  which  the  prefabricators  were  almost  exclusively  concerned. 


5.  Plastics 

The  literal  meaning  of  this  word  is  broad  enough  to  include  many 
substances  not  ordinarily  thought  of  as  plastics,  such  as  concrete, 
brick,  and  glass.  Plastics  in  the  common  sense  of  the  word,  however, 
were  used  as  a  major  structural  material  by  none  of  the  companies 
surveyed.  In  part,  this  was  undoubtedly  the  result  of  the  high  cost 
of  most  plastics,  now  and  in  the  foreseeable  future,  but  there  is  also 
evidence  that  the  structural  properties  of  most  plastics  are  inferior  to 
those  of  wood,  steel,  concrete,  and  aluminum. 

The  comparatively  low  modulus  of  elasticity  of  most  plastics,  in 
conjunction  with  fairly  high  strength,  also  means  that  it  would  be 
inefficient  to  use  such  a  material  as  a  structural  member  designed 
to  carry  loads,  since  the  amount  of  plastic  required  from  the  point 
of  view  of  strength  would  be  far  less  than  the  amount  necessary  to 
prevent  objectionable  deformation  due  to  low  modulus  of  elasticity. 

Laminated  phenolics,  the  most  seriously  considered  of  the  plastics 
as  a  structural  material,  have  three  or  four  times  greater  strength  in 
compression  than  in  tension,  which  makes  it  difficult  to  justify  using 
so  expensive  a  material  in  tension  as  a  working  skin.  Where  a  mate 
rial  is  used  as  compression,  or  load-bearing,  members,  the  aim  of  the 
designer  usually  is  to  produce  members  as  light  and  as  stiff  as  possible. 
Yet,  to  achieve  the  same  resistance  to  deflection  in  a  laminated  phenolic 
as  in  a  steel  compression  member,  nearly  two  and  a  half  times  the 
weight  of  the  steel  would  be  required. 

The  plastics  industry  is  at  work  on  these  problems,  and  such  new 
materials  as  glass-fiber-reinforced  polyesters  show  promise.  The 
major  structural  use  for  plastics,  however,  remains  in  the  bonding 
of  plywood  and  other  built-up  structural  materials. 


6.  Paper 

At  the  time  of  the  survey  several  companies  were  planning  the 
production  of  a  house  designed  to  use  the  surprising  strength  of 

184 


plastic-impregnated  sheets  of  paper,  so  formed  and  glued  (either  as 
a  honeycomb  or  as  a  series  of  corrugated  layers)  as  to  form  a  struc 
tural  core  for  stressed  skin  panels  of  which  the  skin  might  be  plywood, 
aluminum,  steel,  or  possibly  paper  itself.  However,  there  was  no 
actual  production  of  houses  made  of  this  material.3 


B.  By  Structural  System 


Those  interested  in  the  production  aspects  of  housing  have  a  major 
interest  in  structural  systems,  but  they  have  shown  in  the  past  a  com 
mon  tendency  to  classify  entire  structural  systems,  and  particularly 
prefabricated  house  systems,  according  to  the  design  of  the  cross  sec 
tion  of  the  wall.  This  practice  may  be  very  misleading,  since  the 
system  employed  in  the  wall  is  frequently  entirely  different  from  that 
used  elsewhere  in  the  house.  For  that  reason,  each  prefabricated 
house  is  here  broken  down  into  more  or  less  common  component 
structural  parts  and  the  data  are  classified  according  to  the  system 
used  in  these  component  parts.  The  designations  of  these  classes, 
furthermore,  have  been  carefully  selected  to  bring  out  production 
differences.  Thus,  while  the  phrases  "frame  assembly"  and  "frame 
panel"  may  indicate  the  same  thing  in  final  structural  result,  the 
difference  between  them  lies  in  different  amounts  of  factory  prefabri- 
cation  and  different  procedures  for  site  assembly.  Also,  a  prefabri- 
cator  producing  a  conventional  house  by  fabricating  room-size  panels 
is  here  distinguished  from  one  producing  the  same  house  by  merely 
precutting  the  various  pieces.  The  basic  pattern  of  operations  of  the 
prefabricator  is  indicated  as  well  as  the  final  structural  scheme. 


1.  Frame  Assembly 

The  typical  frame  assembly  is  the  conventional  wood  frame  house, 
in  the  course  of  construction  of  which  individual  framing  members 
are  erected  at  the  site  and  various  insulating  and  finishing  materials 
then  applied.  The  precut  lumber  house  is  an  example  of  a  fabrica 
tion  system  embodying  frame  assembly  principles. 

3  More  information  about  these  designs  is  given  on  pp.  233  ff.  A  fuller  descrip 
tion  of  the  material  is  contained  in  Chapter  9. 

185 


Stud 

Diagonal 

bracing 

Diagonal  % 
sheathing 

Building^ 
paper 

Siding 
Sill 


Figure  14.     Conventional  Framing  Illustrating  Construction  Terminology 


2.  Frame  Panels 

In  this  classification,  the  structural  members  are  preassembled  in 
the  form  of  panels,  and  some  or  all  of  the  insulating  and  finishing 
materials  are  usually  applied  in  the  shop  in  order  to  save  time  at  the 
site.  The  wall  panel  produced  by  what  may  be  called  the  typical  pre- 
fabricator  is  a  frame  panel,  made  up  of  framing  lumber  with  wood 
sheathing  nailed  to  it. 


3.  Stressed  Skin  Panels 

Where  the  panels  are  so  designed  and  assembled  that  the  surfacing 
elements  contribute  in  a  major  way  to  the  structural  performance  of 
the  whole,  the  result  has  been  classified  as  a  stressed  skin  panel. 
Typical  design  of  such  a  panel  is  described  on  p.  228.  In  some  cases  a 
stressed  skin  action  is  partially  obtained  by  the  use  of  a  single  surface 
material  bonded  securely  to  the  structural  framing  and  by  this  means 
developing  some  stiffness  and  strength  at  the  contiguous  surfaces. 
Most  constructions  having  a  single  factory-applied  surface  are  not 
securely  enough  bonded  to  develop  this  added  strength,  however, 
and  so  are  classified  in  this  report  as  frame  panels,  rather  than 
stressed  skin  panels. 

There  have  been  some  attempts  to  approach  a  monocoque  system 
of  construction,  but  requirements  for  openings  and  difficulties  with 
internal  shapes  discourage  the  development  for  housing  of  a  true 
single  prestressed  shell.  Yet  the  Harman  house  made  use  of  the 
tension  stressed  steel  sheet  construction  developed  by  the  Lindsay 
Corporation  for  truck  bodies,  and  even  closer  approximations  were 
made  in  the  hemispherical  aluminum  Fuller  house  and  in  NefFs 
hemispherical  and  double  paraboloid  "balloon  house." 

It  is  also  true  that,  to  a  minor  degree,  nearly  all  so-called  frame 
systems  actually  place  some  reliance  upon  stressed  skin  principles, 
but  they  are  rarely  used  deliberately  to  reduce  the  amount  and 
weight  of  the  materials  used.  At  least  in  theory,  true  stressed  skin 
design  has  a  better  chance  of  realization  by  means  of  the  continuous 
sheet  surface  areas,  which  are  well  adapted  to  mass-production  in 
dustrial  processes. 


187 


4.  Solid  Panels 

The  best  example  of  the  solid  panel  is  the  precast  concrete  slab, 
which  is  essentially  homogeneous  throughout.  If  the  amount  of  rein 
forcing  steel  or  the  emphasis  on  such  steel  in  the  design  is  consider 
able,  or  if  laminated  panels  with  plywood  or  asbestos  cement  facings 
are  involved,  where  major  structural  resistance  to  load  is  channeled 
into  skin  or  reinforcement,  the  panels  should  perhaps  logically  be 
placed  under  other  structural  systems.  But  where  the  panel  is  fabri 
cated  as  a  solid  entity  (thus  excluding  honeycomb  core  materials), 
and  where  all  parts  of  the  panel  assume  major  structural  roles,  the 
designation  of  solid  panels  has  been  used. 


5.  Poured  at  Site 

This  classification  includes  essentially  monolithic  structures  in 
which  the  emphasis  in  the  prefabrication  system  tends  to  fall  as  much 
upon  the  pouring  and  forming  machinery  as  upon  the  house  itself. 
An  interesting  monolithic  house,  poured  near  the  site,  was  the  Le- 
Tourneau  house,  formed  in  a  tremendous  and  fully  mobile  perma 
nent  form  known  as  the  Tournalayer.4 

This  device,  and  other  devices  specially  designed  to  make  concrete 
pouring  and  forming  operations  at  the  site  efficient  and  economical, 
have  recently  been  regarded  with  a  great  deal  of  interest  in  this 
country.  A  factor  in  this  interest  has  been  the  recent  rapid  expansion 
of  the  development  of  lightweight  concretes,  offering  easier  handling, 
better  surface  qualities,  far  better  thermal  properties,  and  a  faster 
casting  cycle  than  the  regular  concretes,  while  retaining  sufficient 
strength  to  be  self-supporting  and  avoid  the  necessity  of  added  fram 
ing  or  skins. 


C.  Miscellaneous  Classifications 

Before  turning  to  the  question  of  architectural  design,  attention 
should  be  given  to  two  aspects  of  structural  design  which  are  im 
portant  enough  to  warrant  treatment  as  separate  classifications. 

4  Further  detail  is  given  in  Chapter  9. 

188 


1.  Sectional  Assembly 

The  important  feature  of  this  classification  is  not  the  structural 
system  or  the  materials  used,  but  rather  the  degree  to  which  the  house 
is  preassembled,  by  panels  or  otherwise,  into  complete  volume-en 
closing  units  or  sections  of  the  final  house.  Although  the  Tennessee 
Valley  Authority  was  not  the  first  to  use  the  system,5  this  is  fre 
quently  referred  to  as  the  TVA  style  of  construction  because  of  the 
extent  to  which  sectional  and  truckable  houses  were  used  to  provide 
living  quarters  for  the  crews  engaged  in  the  various  construction 
projects  in  the  Tennessee  Valley.  The  houses  were  easy  to  trans 
port  and  to  put  together,  and  they  required  a  minimum  of  labor  and 
confusion  at  the  site,  thus  freeing  facilities  and  roads  for  the  larger 
jobs  at  hand.  These  advantages  also  frequently  recommended  sec 
tional  house  types  to  those  planning  special  communities  for  the  pro 
duction  of  war  materials  during  the  recent  war,  though  the  TVA 
houses  featured  mobility  to  a  degree  greater  than  that  required  for 
most  residential  areas. 

Because  design  decisions  were  made  by  the  TVA  rather  than  by 
lending  institutions,  mortgage  insuring  institutions,  or  the  ultimate 
consumers,  the  result  was  that  the  whole  construction  operation  could 
be  planned  with  assurance  from  the  start,  and  a  greater  degree  of 
final  finish  and  building  in  of  furniture  was  provided  than  might 
otherwise  be  considered  a  safe  risk. 

Several  different  companies  produced  these  houses  for  the  TVA, 
and  houses  with  similar  design  principles,  such  as  the  Prenco  house 
of  the  Prefabrication  Engineering  Co.  and  the  house  of  Prefabricated 
Products  Co.,  Inc.,  were  tried  out  in  other  parts  of  the  country.  The 
conditions  of  normal  business,  however,  are  different  from  those 
faced  by  the  TVA,  and  the  obstacles  to  be  overcome  are  considerably 
greater.  Nevertheless  the  TVA  experience  points  up  the  fact  that, 
under  certain  conditions,  prefabrication  in  whole  house  sections  can 
do  a  clearly  superior  job. 

The  sectional  house  of  Reliance  Homes,  Inc.,  was  an  example  of  a 
further  extension  of  the  TVA  principle  (see  Figure  22).  The  Reli 
ance  house  was  of  steel  frame  construction,  faced  with  corrugated 
aluminum  over  Homasote  on  the  exterior  and  wallpapered  Homasote 
on  the  interior.  The  house  was  factory  assembled  into  seven  three- 
dimensional  room-sized  sections,  which  were  completely  finished  with 

5  General  Housing  Corporation's  sectional  house  is  described  in  Part  I,  Chapter 

2,  pp.  37-8,  footnote  55. 

189 


wallpaper,  wiring,  floor  covering,  kitchen  equipment,  heating  equip 
ment,  etc.  The  sections  were  transported  to  the  site  on  three  trucks, 
unloaded  by  a  crane,  and  assembled  into  a  house  in  less  than  a  day.6 

The  AIROH  house  (see  Figure  23)  in  Great  Britain,  manufactured 
for  the  government  by  Aircraft  Industry  Research  on  Housing,  is  an 
example  of  the  use  of  these  general  techniques  in  a  light  aluminum 
house  which  has  been  mass  produced  in  tremendous  volume  for 
general  residential  purposes. 

The  sectional  idea  has  been  carried  even  further  when  the  complete 
house  has  been  made  available  in  one  piece,  as  in  the  case  of  the  well- 
known  house  trailer.  Several  designers  have  taken  this  trailer  con 
cept  and  expanded  it  by  ingenious  means  to  produce  a  true  prefabri 
cated  house  in  a  single  section.  Perhaps  the  best  example  of  this  is 
the  Wingfoot  Home  of  the  Goodyear  Tire  &  Rubber  Co.  (see  Figure 
26).  Similar  in  concept  to  the  earlier  Stout  Folding  House,7  it  was  a 
fully  preassembled  and  prefinished  flat-roofed  house  of  stressed  skin 
plywood  with  utilities  completely  installed  and  ready  for  connection 
to  municipal  services.  There  were  two  bedroom  sections  which 
could  be  pulled  out  of  the  central  section  in  the  manner  of  drawers, 
expanding  the  original  trailer  to  a  living  unit  of  253  sq.  ft.8 

These  were  houses  of  which  it  is  fair  to  say  that  the  makers'  aim 
was  not  so  much  to  supply  permanent  living  quarters  for  a  complete 
family  as  to  provide  temporary  houses  with  far  more  livability  than 
the  normal  trailer.  Another  house  under  design  during  the  period 
of  the  survey,  however,  carried  the  same  expanding  principle  even 
further  to  produce  a  good-sized  permanent  house.  This  was  the 
house  designed  by  Acorn  Houses,  Inc.  (see  Figure  27)  to  move  over 
the  roads  in  a  low  trailer  bed  and  unfold  at  the  site  into  a  two-bed 
room  house  of  800  sq.  ft.  This  was  made  possible  by  the  use  of  walls, 
floors,  and  flat  ceiling-roofs  of  plastic-impregnated  paper  core  with 
bonded  plywood  skin,  having  a  cross  section  thin  enough  to  permit 
the  folding  of  hinged  walls,  floors,  and  roofs  against  the  central 
utility  core  during  transit.  At  the  site,  girders  were  laid  on  posts,  the 
floor  units  unfolded  downwards,  the  walls  unfolded  outwards,  and  the 
roof  unfolded  over  the  whole  and  bolted  down.  The  scheme  per- 

6  Reliance  designs  were  considerably  changed  in  the  period  following  the  sur 
vey.    The  latest  schemes  divide  'the  house  into  three  sections,  one  nesting  within 
the  other,  so  that  an  entire  house  can  be  carried  on  a  single  trailer. 

7  Developed  in  1937,  this  was  a  fully  mobile  trailer  which  could  be  expanded 
to  about  three  times  its  original  size  by  folding  the  side  walls  up  and  out  to  form 
an  additional  room  on  either  side. 

8  Construction  of  ceiling  is  described  on  p.  251. 

190 


mitted  complete  factory  finishing  with  a  minimum  risk  of  damage  in 
transit  or  in  construction.9 


2.  Modular  Design 

A  great  deal  of  emphasis  has  been  placed  upon  the  principle  of  the 
dimensional  coordination  of  building  materials  and  components. 
This  principle  must  be  distinguished  from  the  so-called  modular 
planning  long  used  by  many  architects  in  working  out  plans,  although 
the  two  have  elements  in  common.  Architects'  modules  have  been 
for  the  most  part  space  planning  tools,  used  as  a  means  of  assuring 
repetitive  structure  and  planning  simplicity  at  a  larger  scale,  the 
modules  for  such  purposes  running  from  3'  or  4'  in  the  case  of  houses 
to  20'  or  more  in  the  case  of  office  buildings  and  factories. 

An  illustration  of  the  use  of  architectural  planning  of  this  sort  may 
be  found  in  General  Panel,  which  was  originally  designed  to  sell  not 
houses  at  all,  but  only  structural  panels  in  modular  sizes  (based  on  a 
module  of  40" )  and  varying  styles,  capable  of  assembly  into  an  infinite 
variety  of  houses  or  other  buildings  in  accordance  with  the  demands 
of  the  individual  consumer  (see  Figure  15).  It  has  long  been  the 
feeling  of  Walter  Gropius,  one  of  the  original  developers  of  the  Gen 
eral  Panel  system,  that  the  best  combination  of  mass-production  effi 
ciency  and  of  marketing  flexibility  could  in  this  way  be  achieved.  At 
the  time  of  the  survey,  however,  a  relatively  small  percentage  of  the 
business  of  General  Panel  Corporation  of  California  had  been  along 
these  lines.10  A  few  other  prefabricators  made  additional  business 
for  themselves  by  selling  their  panels  for  incorporation  by  local  archi 
tects  and  builders  into  houses  of  conventional  construction.  The, 
HomeOla  Corporation  sold  separate  panels  several  times,  and  some 
of  the  resulting  houses  were  given  acclaim  in  the  architectural  mag 
azines. 

Modular  design  is  of  obvious  importance  in  prefabrication.  Few 
prefabricators,  however,  have  understood  it  as  a  basic  principle  of  de- 

9  Further  details  on  construction  are  given  on  p.  235. 

10  For  many  reasons,  it  has  been  necessary  for  prefabricators  to  concentrate  on 
producing  a  complete  house.     These  modular  panels  have  not  been  generally 
available,  although  recent  efforts  have  been  made  to  bring  them  into  more  gen 
eral  use.     Even  when  offering  packages  of  panels  to  be  assembled  into  specific 
designs,  General  Panel  has  been  able  to  take  advantage  of  this  basic  flexibility 
and  to  offer  as  many  as  25  radically  different  designs. 

191 


THE  JOINT 
is  assembled  when 
three  parts  are 
nested  together  and 
the  fourth  driven 
home  with  a  hammer. 
The  system  is 
designed  to  permit 
joining  of  panels  in 
any  combination 


Insulation 
Bracing 

Exterior 

skin 

Wiring 


Post 


Corner 


One  way 


Two  way 


Three  way 


Four  way 


THE  PANELS 
are  interchangeable. 
The  entire  house  is 
panelized,  all  panels 
being  similar  in 
proportion,  edge 
profile  and  method 
of  connection 


Figure  15.    The  General  Panel  System 


sign,  applicable  to  all  parts  of  the  structure.  These  basic  principles 
have  been  briefly  sketched 11  as  they  were  developed  by  Albert 
Far  well  Bemis.  All  dimensions  in  Bemis'  experimental  prefabricated 
houses  (1925-1932)  were  based  on  his  cubical  modular  method  of 
design,  including  dimensions  of  finish  materials  and  of  some  equip 
ment.  He  demonstrated  that  one  result  was  complete  flexibility  of 
layout  and  theorized  that  substantial  production  economies  also 
should  obtain. 

There  are  at  least  two  factors  which  explain  why  prefabricators  do 
not  at  present  make  greater  use  of  modular  design.  The  first  is  that 
they  have  standardized  on  only  one  or  two  or  at  least  a  very  limited 
number  of  house  plans.  With  so  little  variation  of  design,  complete 
modularization  carries  small  advantage.  In  the  second  place,  the 
building  materials  industry  has  only  just  begun  to  standardize  dimen 
sions  on  a  modular  basis,  and  much  of  this  early  coordination  has  been 
accomplished  by  the  brick,  tile,  and  masonry  unit  manufacturers  so 
that  it  is  of  little  use  in  prefabrication.  Consequently,  prefabricators 
have  been  forced  to  choose  their  materials  and  equipment  from  a 
poorly  coordinated  industry,  and  to  design  their  houses  around  them 
in  the  most  effective  manner  to  meet  immediate  needs.  Such  prob 
lems  as  the  interchangeability  of  wood  and  metal  windows,  free  choice 
of  built-in  mechanical  equipment,  and  complete  flexibility  of  layout 
have  been  left  to  the  future. 

Although  none  of  the  companies  in  our  survey  had  completely 
adopted  the  modular  theory  of  design,  a  majority  of  them  were  bene 
fiting  by  the  use  of  some  planning  or  manufacturing  module.  The 
most  common  such  module  was  4",  or  some  multiple  thereof.  ( Amer 
ican  Standards  Association  official  American  Standard  No.  A62. 1-1945 
states,  "The  basis  for  dimensional  coordination  shall  be  the  standard 
grid  based  on  the  module  of  4  inches.") 

At  least  46  of  the  companies  dimensioned  their  components  in 
multiples  of  2"  or  4"  and,  of  these,  six  favored  the  40"  manufacturing 
module,  which  is  not  only  practicable  for  local  purposes  but  also  is 
close  to  the  metric  module  widely  favored  abroad.  Some  sort  of 
recognition  of  the  4"  module  was  given  by  at  least  62  companies  in 
all. 

Other  modules  were  used,  however.  At  least  three  companies 
used  a  basic  module  of  3";  two  used  39"  as  a  manufacturing  module; 
and  one  used  4'  3%"  as  a  manufacturing  module. 

11  Part  I,  Chapter  2.  Extensive  design  details  are  available  in  the  A62  Guide 
for  Modular  Coordination  (Boston:  Modular  Service  Association,  1946). 

193 


Of  those  not  using  modules  as  a  design  or  manufacturing  basis,  most 
were  producing  but  one  or  a  very  few  standardized  models  which 
permitted  a  relatively  standardized  production.  Some  claimed  that, 
by  disregarding  modular  dimensions,  they  were  able  in  practice  to 
effect  saving  in  the  fitting  of  equipment  and  the  sizing  of  rooms.  On 
the  other  hand,  others  making  a  limited  number  of  models  still 
found  advantages  in  modular  dimensioning.  Thus  Harnischfeger 
made  up  panels  in  widths  of  any  multiple  of  4',  and  found  that  it  gave 
his  dealers  a  good  deal  of  elasticity  in  the  erection  procedures  selected. 
Some  preferred  to  handle  4'  panels  as  such;  others  asked  to  have  them 
preassembled  in  12'  and  16'  lengths;  and  at  least  one  asked  for  de 
livery  in  the  form  of  fully  assembled  wall-length  panels,  to  be  erected 
at  the  site  with  a  crane. 


3.  Architectural  Style 

One  of  the  oldest  and  certainly  one  of  the  most  popular  methods 
of  classifying  houses  is  by  the  general  appearance  or  architectural 
style.  Aside  from  simply  describing  the  basic  surface  material,  this 
is  indeed  probably  the  way  most  people  try  to  describe  houses  to 
one  another.  Those  trained  in  architecture,  however,  would  be  the 
first  to  say  that  this  is  something  less  than  the  ideal  method,  because 
general  appearance  and  architectural  style  may  mean  very  different 
things  to  different  people. 

As  has  been  said  at  the  beginning  of  this  chapter,  this  entire  book 
is  concerned  with  architecture  in  the  broad  sense.  The  materials 
and  structural  design,  the  production  system,  and  the  erection 
scheme  are  far  more  important  to  the  architecture  of  prefabrication 
than  the  so-called  style  in  which  the  final  house  is  clothed.  Yet  classi 
fication  by  architectural  style  cannot  be  entirely  dismissed  here,  be 
cause  it  is  a  matter  of  great  concern  to  most  prefabricators,  however 
widely  their  interpretations  of  architectural  treatment  may  vary. 

A  few  prefabricators,  including  some  of  the  prominent  names  in  the 
business,  have  little  use  for  architects  and  profess  to  believe  they  have 
nothing  to  offer  the  prefabricator.  At  the  other  extreme,  several  pre 
fabricators  have  come  into  the  field  directly  from  architecture.  Some 
of  these  are  crusaders,  and  a  few  appear  to  be  far  more  interested  in 
expanding  the  vision  of  the  public  and  of  their  profession  than  in 
making  houses  on  a  business  basis. 

194 


For  most  of  the  prefabricators,  however,  good  architecture  is  but 
one  of  several  important  aspects  of  the  business,  and  they  take  steps 
to  get  it,  according  to  their  understanding  of  the  term.  As  might  be 
expected,  the  most  rational  architectural  approach  has  generally  been 
found  in  the  companies  making  the  greatest  innovations,  for  in  such 
cases  the  importance  of  the  architect  in  producing  a  livable  and  sal 
able  house  by  the  new  techniques  becomes  obvious.  Probably  archi 
tecture  has  had  the  least  influence  on  those  companies  devoted  to 
manufacturing,  by  a  somewhat  more  industrialized  process,  the  same 
kind  of  conventional  house  as  is  built  in  the  area  by  speculative  build 
ers.  Yet  even  these  often  found  a  business  advantage  in  devoting 
time  and  money  to  the  appearance  of  the  house  and  to  the  gadgets 
and  decorations  which  frequently  pass  for  architecture.  The  adver 
tising  world  has  created  too  vivid  a  picture  of  the  normal  American 
dream  house  to  be  disregarded. 

In  factual  terms,  by  far  the  majority  of  the  prefabricators  during 
the  period  of  survey  were  satisfied  to  put  before  the  public  what  can 
only  be  called  conventional  houses,  either  as  the  result  of  careful  de 
liberation  or  only  unconsciously,  because  that  was  what  a  house  had 
always  meant  to  them.  At  least  80  companies  came  in  that  group. 
On  the  other  hand,  perhaps  40  wanted  something  different,  usually 
along  the  lines  of  what  has  been  called  "modern"  architecture.  Archi 
tects  would  probably  classify  as  of  sound  design— whether  conven 
tional  or  modern  in  spirit— about  one-quarter  of  these  prefabricated 
houses,  or  very  little  more  than  would  be  the  case  with  conven 
tional  houses.  In  about  the  same  fraction  of  houses,  often  although 
not  always  the  same,  were  the  services  of  an  architect  employed  some 
where  along  the  line. 

The  value  of  architecture  to  most  companies  lay  in  its  relation  to 
marketing,  and  it  was  for  the  most  part  thought  of  primarily  as  a  sales 
feature.  Some  prefabricators,  in  fact,  spoke  of  a  "basic  house"  to 
which  such  "architectural  treatment"  as  false  gables,  long  shutters, 
and  special  entrance  details  were  to  be  added,  often  as  extras.  They 
were  usually  convinced  that  houses  of  modest  and  conservative  ap 
pearance,  reminiscent  of  the  Cape  Cod  cottage,  represented  the  safest 
gamble,  and  in  this  opinion  they  were  reinforced  by  the  commercial 
failure  of  several  attempts  to  market  more  advanced  designs.  Many 
were,  however,  becoming  convinced  that  in  recent  years  the  archi 
tectural  tastes  of  the  public  have  in  some  respects  been  tending  to 
move  away  from  the  Cape  Cod  cottage.  The  suggestions  of  open 
planning  contained  in  such  terms  as  "picture  window"  and  "ranch- 
house  style"  were  becoming  stronger,  the  more  so  the  farther  west  in 

195 


the  country,  and  the  wide  appeal  of  the  all-on-one-floor  house  was 
recognized.  Few,  if  any,  of  the  larger  companies  produced  a  two- 
story  house.  A  sizable  group  produced,  and  perhaps  twice  as  many 
were  contemplating,  a  story-and-a-half  house,  usually  of  conven 
tional  design  with  two  bedrooms  planned  for  the  second  floor  but  not 
finished,  but  in  most  cases  this  was  done  primarily  for  reasons  of 
economy. 

The  largest  single  factor  in  making  the  prefabricators  conscious  of  a 
more  fundamental  sort  of  architecture  in  terms  of  sound  space  plan 
ning  and  construction  probably  was  the  requirement,  often  a  matter 
of  life  or  death,  that  their  houses  meet  the  approval  of  the  FHA.  A 
certain  minimum  good  design  was  assured  in  this  way,  but  it  is 
clear  that  the  narrow  views  of  many  financiers  on  architectural  mat 
ters  were  a  severe  limitation  on  those  whose  training  was  good  and 
who  were  eager  to  offer  an  architecturally  sound  house  created  by  a 
new  approach. 

The  Reliance  house,  first  designed  by  William  Lescaze  with  a  flat 
roof,  was  refused  approval  for  mortgage  insurance  by  the  Philadel 
phia  FHA  office,  though  the  design  met  with  no  objections  from  the 
national  FHA  office.  The  Philadelphia  office,  stating  that  the  design 
lacked  "to  a  substantial  degree  those  essential  esthetic  qualities  and 
visual  appeal  which  are  necessary  to  assure  continued  marketabil 
ity/'12  required  that  a  pitched  roof  be  added  to  qualify  the  house 
for  mortgage  insurance.  The  local  office  later  did  permit  the  flat- 
roofed  houses  to  be  erected,  after  finding  that  their  acceptability  ex 
ceeded  that  of  the  pitched-roof  variety. 


III.  Description  of  Components 


A.  General 

In  the  discussion  which  follows,  the  system  of  classification  by  struc 
tural  system  is  applied  in  detail,  not  to  the  house,  but  to  its  major 
components,  using  for  this  purpose  those  components  into  which  the 

Architectural  Forum,  88  (March  1948),  11. 
196 


Chart  A 


Roof 


Ceiling 


Floor 


Frame  Assembly 


! ! !  !  !  I   Frame  Panel 


Stressed  Skin  Panel 


Solid  Panel 


Construction  Used  in 
Prefabricated  Components 


Notes:  Design  information  was  analyzed  for 
125  companies  in  all.  In  some  cases  the 
information  required  to  prepare  these  charts 
was  not  available.  In  other  cases,  companies 
could  properly  be  listed  in  more  than  one 
category.  The  totals  should  not,  therefore,  be 
expected  to  check  with  the  headings  in  every 
case.  At  least  25  companies  used  concrete 
slab  floors  for  most  of  their  houses.  Many 
more  used  slab  floors  occasionally. 


12 


house  is  most  readily  divided,  namely:  foundations,  floors,  walls,  ceil 
ings,  and  roofs.  Chart  A  gives  a  breakdown  of  companies  according 
to  the  structural  system  used  in  their  various  component  parts. 

For  each  component,  there  is  a  breakdown  according  to  structural 
system  (as  defined  in  the  last  section),  and  within  each  such  subdi 
vision,  as  fully  detailed  information  is  given  as  possible.  Thus,  in 
order  to  find  the  wall-panel  size  most  commonly  used  by  prefabri- 
cators  of  houses  of  stressed  skin  plywood  construction,  it  is  necessary 
to  turn  to  the  component  "walls,"  and  under  it  to  the  structural  classi 
fication  "stressed  skin."  (In  this  case,  there  was  no  single  preference; 
prefabricators  were  almost  evenly  divided  between  48"  panels  and 
room-size  panels. )  So  far  as  possible,  this  information  has  been  made 
available  in  tabular  form,  and  from  a  brief  scanning  of  these  tables 
the  characteristic  construction  systems  become  apparent. 

It  should  be  recalled  that  the  survey  did  not  include  the  entire 
industry,  that  there  was  a  predominance  in  numbers  of  small-shop 
fabricators  of  essentially  conventional  houses,  and  that  the  producers 
of  potentially  great  numbers  of  new  types  of  houses  were  in  few  cases 
in  production  and  in  no  case  in  full  production.  The  numbers  which 
appear  in  these  tables,  therefore,  are  not  suitable  for  statistical  analy 
sis;  they  serve  rather  to  give  a  generally  accurate  picture  of  the 
industry. 

One  general  comment  which  is  made  here  in  order  to  give  it  due 
importance  concerns  the  treatment  of  detail.  In  most  of  the  houses 
studied,  particularly  the  interiors,  there  was  an  element  of  crudity- 
lack  of  refinement  of  details,  lack  of  precision  of  manufacture,  and 
insufficient  attention  to  materials  used  for  interior  finish— which  could 
well  do  injury  to  the  whole  product.  By  and  large,  this  was  no  more 
true  of  prefabricated  houses  than  of  conventional  houses  built  during 
the  same  period,  but  the  prefabricators  could  far  less  afford  to  have 
criticism  focus  on  such  matters. 


B.  Foundations 


Very  few  house  manufacturers  supply  any  sort  of  prefabricated 
foundation,  and  there  are  almost  as  few  specialized  manufacturers  of 
prefabricated  foundations.  Several  prefabricators  did  supply  concrete 
posts  or  wooden  piers,  however,  and  two  companies  even  had  precast 
slabs  for  use  in  forming  basement  walls  and  floors,  but  except  for 
specialized  local  operations  prefabricators  saw  no  economies  inherent 

198 


in  the  use  of  precast  concrete  slabs  for  basements  because  of  their 
weight  and  bulk  and  general  difficulty  of  handling,  and  because  simple 
means  of  construction  at  the  site  were  readily  available.  Neverthe 
less,  special  handling  devices  make  it  possible  to  move  precast  slabs 
into  place,  and  several  companies  were  working  at  least  experiment 
ally  on  the  simplification  of  their  foundation  construction  work. 

Of  the  companies  studied  in  the  survey,  at  least  16  designed  their 
houses  specifically  for  a  basement  and  supplied  detailed  foundation 
plans,  although  in  most  cases  the  basement  was  to  be  built  by  the 
local  builder.  These  prefabricators  were  predominantly  in  the  north, 
where  continuous  foundation  footings  to  a  depth  as  great  as  4'  might 
be  called  for  anyway,  but  they  also  felt  that  the  public  wants  base 
ments,  as  shown  by  almost  all  conventional  houses  in  some  areas. 
The  arguments  for  the  basement  stress  the  large  amount  of  storage 
and  general  utility  space  thus  made  available  at  a  relatively  low 
cost,  and  these  considerations  have  enough  weight  to  persuade  at 
least  47  of  the  other  prefabricators,  who  do  not  insist  upon  base 
ments,  to  offer  them  as  an  optional  feature. 

Those  opposed  to  the  use  of  basements  point  out  that  they  add 
cost  to  the  final  house— on  the  average  about  $500— and  that  the  func 
tions  usually  allocated  to  them  can  more  safely  and  efficiently  be  per 
formed  above  ground  in  space  designed  for  the  purpose.  Essentially, 
these  men  say,  the  basement  is  incompatible  with  the  concept  of 
prefabrication  which  would  reduce  site  work  to  a  minimum,  and 
which  requires  the  timing  of  site  preparation  to  be  as  simple  and  de 
pendable  as  possible.  To  schedule  steady  sales  throughout  the  year, 
a  northern  dealer  would  have  to  tie  up  money  in  many  basements 
made  ready  in  good  weather  to  handle  house  erections  in  bad. 

This  argument  depends  upon  many  design  factors,  and  cannot  be 
settled  once  and  for  all,13  but  the  advantages  to  the  prefabricator  of 
the  basementless  house  are  such  that  there  has  been  a  strong  tendency 
to  build  such  houses,  even  in  northern  climates.  At  least  56  prefabri 
cators  produced  basementless  houses  exclusively.  A  few  of  those  ex 
perimenting  in  northern  and  eastern  areas  with  such  houses  found 
better  public  acceptance  than  they  had  expected,  particularly  if  con 
struction  economies  were  passed  along  to  the  consumer.  On  the 
other  hand,  several  companies  selling  large  quantities  in  northern  cli 
mates  when  they  gave  the  option  of  basement  or  no  basement  found 
that  the  market  preferred  the  basement.  Of  course,  this  may  be 

13  An  interesting  study  has  been  made  by  the  HHFA  on  "Basements  vs.  No 
Basements  for  Houses,"  HHFA  Technical  Bulletin,  no.  8  (January  1949),  pp. 
47-59. 

199 


attributable  to  the  nature  of  the  differences  in  the  design  and  cost 
of  the  two  types  as  much  as  to  a  preference  for  the  basement  as 
such. 

The  majority  of  basementless  houses  were  placed  on  continuous 
foundation  walls  of  some  sort— either  poured  concrete  walls  support 
ing  a  wooden  or  concrete  floor  system,  or  the  edge  of  a  floating  slab 
designed  in  effect  as  a  grade  beam.  Only  a  few  of  the  houses,  15  in 
all,  and  mostly  the  smallest  and  least  substantial,  were  placed  on  piers 
or  posts.  This  was  in  part  the  result  of  FHA,  building-code,  and  bank 
ing  requirements  of  continuous  foundation  walls.14 

Little  new  development  has  taken  place  in  foundations,  and  that 
has  been  done  mostly  in  connection  with  basementless  houses.  Some 
of  the  ideas  developed  for  houses  on  pier  or  post  foundations  include 
the  use  of  special  built-in  jacks  to  level  the  house  on  the  permanent 
foundation  system  (TVA),  the  use  of  precast  concrete  discs  with 
holes  in  the  middle  strung  on  an  iron  pipe  to  build  up  masonry  posts 
(Swedish),  and  the  use  of  precast  concrete  posts  which  are  hung 
from  the  jacked-up  floor  beams  (see  Figure  16)  until  the  bulk  con 
crete  footings  poured  about  the  posts  have  had  time  to  harden  suffi 
ciently  to  permit  the  removal  of  jacks  (Acorn).15 

With  the  grade  beam  foundation,  which  is  not  necessarily  footed 
below  the  frost  line,  there  has  been  quite  a  bit  of  experimentation, 
and  study  is  in  progress.  In  at  least  one  case  it  was  proposed  to  use 
radiant  heat  in  such  a  slab  to  prevent  frost  formation  in  the  ground 
beneath  it.  Most  designs,  however,  set  out  to  defeat  frost  heave  by 
using  sand  and  gravel  under  the  slab  and  by  otherwise  naturally 
or  artificially  keeping  the  underlying  soil  well  drained.  Some  de 
signers  claim  that  the  loading  of  many  domestic  superstructures  is 
so  light  that  little  damage  is  likely,  to  structure,  foundation,  or 
plumbing,  as  the  result  of  the  temporary  lifting  of  a  corner  through 
mild  frost  heave. 

Perhaps  the  second  largest  problem  of  the  grade  beam  or  slab 
foundation  is  that  of  insulating  the  walls  and  the  corners  and  edges 
of  the  floor  from  the  cold.  This  problem  has  been  the  subject  of  a 
great  deal  of  study  and  is  more  fully  discussed  on  p.  208. 

14  These  requirements  are  becoming  more  liberal,  and  a  pier  or  post  founda 
tion,  with  proper  insulation  in  the  floor,  is  now  acceptable  in  many  more  localities 
than  at  the  time  of  the  survey. 

15  Recent  work  by  HHFA  engineers  tends  to  show  that  adequate  ventilation  of 
the  crawl  space  under  such  houses  is  the  only  surely  effective  means  of  preventing 
accumulation  of  moisture  in  the  wood  of  the  structure  above  (HHFA  Technical 
Bulletin,  no.  8  [January  1949],  p.  107). 

200 


STEP1 

Girder  bolted  to  precast  concrete 
pier  and  lowered  by  gin  pole  into 
hole  in  ground.  Jacks  used  to 
support  girder  and  pier 


STEP  2 

Girder  is  leveled  by  means 
of  two  jacks.  Wood  blocking 
inserted  to  support  girder 
and  pier.  Jacks  removed 


STEPS 

Concrete  poured  into 
hole  and  allowed  to 
set  Hole  is  then  filled 
with  earth  and  well 
tamped 


Figure  16.     The  Acorn  Footing 


C.  Floors 


1.  Frame  Assembly 

Under  this  heading  are  included  floor  structures  which  are  made 
up  at  the  site  from  precut  or  otherwise  prepared  members.    A  large 


Chart   B 


Frame  Assembly  Floor 
32  Companies 


Frame  members 


Structural  floor 


29 

wood 

3 

steel 

21 

2"  X  8" 

8 

2"  X  6" 

26 

16"  o.c. 

29 

nailed 

2 

bolted 

15 

plywood 

16 

wood 

9 

if 

9 

i" 

30 

nailed 

1 

bolted 

7 

prefinished  hardwood 

4 

unfinished  hardwood 

25 

nailed 

3 

glued 

1 

glued  and  nailed 

Finish  floor 


number  of  manufacturers  who  panelized  walls  and  other  portions 
of  their  houses  preferred  to  precut  the  floor  system,  probably  be 
cause  of  the  bulkiness  of  panels  built  up  with  joist-size  lumber,  the 
difficulty  of  achieving  a  solid  and  silent  structure,  the  known  mar- 

202 


ket  preference  for  a  continuous  hardwood  floor,  and  the  relative 
advantages  of  site  assembly  over  prefabrication  in  making  allowance 
for  imperfectly  dimensioned  foundations  and  in  permitting  the  use 
of  diagonal  lumber  subflooring.  In  all,  29  companies  used  frame 
assemblies  of  wood  in  their  floors. 

It  is  significant,  however,  that  three  of  the  largest  companies 
(National  Homes,  HomeOla,  and  Houston  Ready-Cut)  made  use 
of  wide-spaced  (4'  o.c.)  steel  framing  members  (I  beams,  channels, 
or  open  web  bar  joists)  on  which  framed  wood  sections  were  placed, 
and  at  least  as  many  more  were  considering  use  of  this  system. 

A  summary  of  the  data  on  frame  assembly  floors  is  presented  here 
with  (Chart  B).  This  chart  and  the  others  which  follow  it  give 
only  a  selection  of  the  most  useful  information  from  our  survey. 

Although  no  such  system  was  actually  seen  in  use  in  a  prefabri 
cated  house,  the  National  Lumber  Manufacturers  Association  has 
publicized  the  design  of  a  floor  of  2"  X  6"  dressed  and  matched 
tongue  and  groove  planks  laid  over  girders  6'  0"  o.c.  According  to 
the  preliminary  figures  of  the  Association,  this  offered  hope  of  sav 
ings  as  high  as  26%  on  labor  and  14%  on  material  in  comparison  with 
the  conventional  system,  and  might  add  as  much  as  24%  to  the  in 
sulation  value.  It  had  been  used  by  architects  and  was  being  seri 
ously  considered  by  several  of  the  prefabricators. 


2.  Frame  Panels 

Chart  C  presents  a  summary  of  the  details  of  construction  used  by 
the  49  companies  which  employed  frame  panels  in  their  floors.  The 
variation  in  sizes  and  spacings  of  floor  joists  in  these  panels  is  the 
result  not  so  much  of  building  regulations  or  differences  in  engi 
neering  standards  as  of  variation  in  structural  floor  (usually  sub- 
floor)  thickness  and  design. 

Floor  panels  used  in  basementless  houses  are  usually  insulated, 
particularly  in  northern  climates,  and  the  importance  of  vapor  bar 
riers  is  beginning  to  be  realized.  For  the  installation  of  insulation 
and  vapor  barriers,  factory  assembly  appeared  to  offer  some  advan 
tages  over  field  installation,  although  only  14  companies  gave  definite 
indication  of  providing  both,  and  among  them  there  was  wide  varia 
tion,  both  in  materials  used  and  in  method  of  installation.  Some 
took  the  chance  that  insulation,  even  thin  reflective  insulation,  might 
be  damaged  in  transportation  and  handling,  and  made  no  effort  to 

203 


Chart   C 


Frame  Panel  Floor 
49  Companies 


Frame  members 


Panel  size 


Joint 


Structural  floor 


Finish  floor 


*  Types  discussed  pp.  218  ff. 


46 

wood 

3 

steel 

26 

2"X%" 

17 

2"  X  6" 

2 

2"  X3" 

44 

16"  o.c. 

2 

24"  o.c. 

39 

nailed 

5 

glued  and 

nailed 

17 

4'  X  12' 

6 

8'  X  12' 

3 

6'  X  12' 

33 

butt 

5 

interlock 

3 

spline 

23 

wood 

21 

plywood 

2 

steel 

1 

metal  lath 

and  concrete 

16 

r 

11 

«! 

3 

&" 

39 

nailed 

7 

glued  and  nailed 

16 

prefinished 

hardwood 

16 

unfinished 

hardwood 

39 

nailed 

3 

glued 

1 

poured 

204 


protect  it  or  box  it  in,  probably  on  the  theory  that  where  boxing  can 
be  avoided  and  bridging  done  at  the  site  there  are  certain  advantages 
of  nesting  panels  during  shipment. 

The  difficulties  of  factory  application  of  finish  flooring  are  empha 
sized  by  the  relatively  small  number  of  companies  which  attempt 
it.  Unless  joints  16  between  panels,  always  a  problem  in  floors,  can 
be  concealed  under  partitions  and  thresholds,  it  becomes  a  handi 
craft  operation  to  make  them  tight,  and  there  are  additional  problems 
of  protecting  the  assembled  and  sanded  floor  in  handling.  Since 
floor  panels  also  tend  to  be  large,  the  factory  application  of  finish 
flooring  tends  to  make  them  hard  to  manhandle,  particularly  if 
lumber  subflooring  is  used.  With  rougher  floor  panels,  simple  butt 
or  lap  joints  can  be  used,  and  the  finish  floor  applied  in  the  field. 

In  order  to  avoid  doubling  of  framing  members  at  the  joint,  sev 
eral  companies  have  changed  from  butt  joints  to  some  variation  of 
lap  joints,  which  require  a  higher  degree  of  subfloor  uniformity  and 
thus  place  some  advantage  on  the  use  of  plywood  for  the  structural 
floor  instead  of  lumber. 


3.  Stressed  Skin  Panels 

Chart  D  presents  a  summary  of  the  construction  details  of  the  16 
companies  using  stressed  skin  panels  in  their  floors.  From  the  point 
of  view  of  reducing  weight,  stressed  skin  panels  have  definite  advan 
tages,  and  the  double  skin  makes  a  substantial  increase  in  the 
thermal-insulation  value  of  the  floor.  It  further  obviates  any  neces 
sity  for  bridging  between  joists.  However,  some  care  is  required  to 
prevent  condensation  within  the  panels. 

It  will  be  noted  that  these  panels  are  not  produced  in  noticeably 
larger  sizes  than  the  frame  panels,  despite  the  possibilities  offered 
by  lighter  weight,  and  that  the  joints  in  such  panels  tend  to  become 
more  complex  because  of  the  inability  to  get  at  the  interior  of  the 
panels,  although  in  some  cases  hand  holes  were  provided  as  access 
for  bolting  or  other  inside  connection.  These  joints,  in  addition  to 
providing  continuous  structural  connection,  were  used  to  position 
the  panels,  and  a  feature  was  often  made  of  their  special  characteris 
tic  of  making  the  whole  structure  demountable.  In  some  cases, 
however,  they  become  so  complex  as  to  require  rather  expensive 
millwork  pieces. 

16  Joint  types  are  discussed  on  pp.  218ff. 

205 


Chart   D 


Stressed  Skin  Panel  Floor 
16  Companies 


Frame  members 


Panel  size 


Joint 


Structural  floor 


15 

wood 

1 

steel 

1 

aluminum 

7 

2"X6" 

2 

1"X6" 

2 

2"  X  8* 

2 

2"  X  4" 

12 

16"  o.c. 

11 

glued  and 

nailed 

2 

nailed 

1 

glued 

1 

bolted 

4 

4'  X  8' 

2 

4'  X  12' 

2 

4'  X  house  width 

5 

butt 

4 

spline 

4 

interlock 

2 

lap 

16 

plywood 

7 

H" 

5 

H* 

2 

M* 

11 

glued  and 

nailed 

2 

glued 

2 

electronic 

glue 

2 

riveted  or 

bolted 

206 


Finish  floor 


plywood  (3  rotary,  2  edge  grain) 

unfinished  hardwood 

optional 

asphalt  tile 

glued 

nailed 

glued  and  nailed 

stapled 


At  the  time  of  the  study  new  interest  was  being  displayed  in  the 
use  of  edge-grain  plywood  as  a  finish  floor  and  subfloor  combined, 
to  be  applied  in  one  sheet.  This  was  used  by  only  two  companies, 
and  it  was  not  known  at  the  time  whether  a  cost  saving  could  be 
made  in  this  way  or  not.  However,  it  was  generally  felt  that  rotary- 
cut  fir  plywood  would  not  be  satisfactory  as  finish  flooring,  because 
of  its  relatively  poor  and  uneven  wearing  quality.  One  company 
used  oak  veneer  as  a  factory-finished  floor  surface,  but  it  appeared 
to  be  rather  expensive  at  the  time.  There  was  little  experimentation 
with  the  new  composition  floor  materials. 

Nearly  all  companies  used  linoleum  flooring  in  the  bathroom  or 
kitchen  or  both,  but  none  attempted  to  apply  this  in  the  factory. 
It  was  interesting  to  note  an  increasing  tendency  to  use  asphalt  tile 
flooring  throughout  the  house,  in  the  case  of  wood  floor  systems  as 
well  as  that  of  concrete,  and,  when  used,  it  seemed  to  meet  with 
little  marketing  resistance. 


4.  Solid  Panels 

Only  five  companies  used  solid  panels  in  their  floors,  and  these 
were  for  the  most  part  precast  concrete  panels.  The  fact  that  so 
few  companies  used  such  floors  may  be  explained  in  part  by  the  fact 
that  only  one  smooth  surface  is  required  for  a  floor,  and  companies 
using  precast  wall  slabs  find  it  simpler  to  cast  the  floor  slab  on  the 
ground  at  the  site.17 

Where  there  is  a  basement  there  is  the  possibility,  not  actually 
tried  by  any  of  the  companies  in  the  survey,  of  constructing  a  floor 

17  Nevertheless,  there  are  indications  that  certain  techniques,  such  as  the 
Vacuum  Concrete  process  and  the  use  of  prestressed  reinforcing,  together  with 
some  means  of  bedding  them  down  firmly,  may  make  it  economically  possible  to 
use  precast  concrete  floor  slabs,  particularly  in  large  projects. 

207 


with  long  precast  and  prestressed  reinforced  concrete  beams  which 
have  a  rectangular  cross  section  and  usually  a  hollow  central  core. 
Such  beams  were  widely  marketed  by  The  Flexicore  Co.,  Inc.,  and  at 
least  two  other  companies  for  use  in  conventional  construction,  and 
they  offered  interesting  possibilities  for  specialized  construction  if 
joint  problems  could  be  handled. 


5.  Poured  at  Site 

At  least  25  companies  were  using  poured-at-site  floor  construction, 
the  great  majority  of  them  using  asphalt  tile  or  linoleum  for  their 
finished  floor  surface. 

Since  concrete  is  a  porous  material  and  a  poor  thermal  insulator, 
it  was  becoming  increasingly  obvious  to  these  companies  that  care 
ful  attention  must  be  paid  to  insulating  it  from  both  the  ground  and 
the  outside  air  (see  Figure  17).  Western  firms,  with  longer  experience 
in  this  sort  of  construction,  were  often  found  to  exercise  great  care 
in  the  placement  of  a  waterproof  membrane  beneath  and  around 
the  edges  of  the  slab— usually  hot  tar  and  #15  roofing  felt— even 
where  no  insulation  was  required.18  Many  of  the  slabs  produced  for 
northern  climates,  however,  seemed  deficient  in  insulation.19  The 
possible  use  of  lightweight  aggregates  having  better  insulative  quali 
ties  and  of  waterproofing  admixtures  was  under  consideration  at  the 
time  of  the  survey. 

The  development  of  the  ground  slab  was  being  spurred  not  only 
by  materials  savings,  labor  simplicity,  time  savings,  and  generally 
lower  costs,  but  also  in  some  degree  by  the  regulations  of  the  FHA 

18  The  Byrne  Organization  takes  the  following  precautions  with  slabs  cast  di 
rectly  on  the  ground: 

"All  slabs  have  a  porous  sub-base  of  considerable  thickness  with  a  perimeter 
grade  beam  around  the  building  sufficiently  deep  to  be  below  the  frost  line  and 
to  cut  off  subsurface  water.  .  .  .  We  never  locate  slabs  on  lots  which  have  an 
accumulation  of  water  through  poor  drainage.  The  top  of  the  slab  is  furthermore 
placed  about  a  foot  above  the  ground  which  is  carefully  graded  away  from  the 
building  on  all  four  sides."  (Letter  from  Wesley  H.  Blank,  Chief  Engineer  of 
the  Byrne  Organization,  to  the  Bemis  Foundation,  July  31,  1947.) 

19  See  "Insulation  of  Concrete  Floors  in  Dwellings,"  HHFA  Technical  Bulle 
tin,  no.  8  (January  1949),  p.  149.    Also  Concrete  Floors  for  Basementless  Houses, 
Small  Homes  Council,  University  of  Illinois,  Circular  Series  F4.3   (August   10, 
1948). 

208 


requiring  a  large  ventilation  space  under  a  platform  floor  and  above 
the  ground  in  the  case  of  a  basementless  house.  Many  companies 
felt  that  their  small  houses  would  have  an  awkward  appearance  and 


Metal  flashing 
Asbestos  cement 
Insulation 
Anchor  bolt 
Concrete  grade 
beam 

Footings  not  carried 
below  grade  beam 


Anchor  bolt 
Insulation 
Foundation  wall 
Concrete  footing 

Footings  carried 
below  grade  beam 


Concrete 
slab 

Roofing  felt 
Cinders 
Earth 


Figure  17. 


Roofing  felt 
Cinders 
Earth 


Examples  of  Grade  Beam  and  Concrete 
Slab  on  Grade 


serious  marketing  difficulties  if  built  up  too  high  above  the  ground 
level,  and  there  was  reason  to  believe  that  the  public  was  not  seri 
ously  opposed  either  to  the  basementless  house  or  to  the  ground  slab 
floor. 


209 


D.  Walls 


1.  General 

Prefabricators,  housing  theorists,  and  rationalizers  of  construction 
in  general  have  devoted  more  attention  to  the  construction  of  walls 
than  to  that  of  any  other  part  of  the  house.  The  human  being, 
viewing  the  world  primarily  in  a  horizontal  plane,  seems  to  assume 
that  walls  make  the  house,  and  the  inventive  mind  has  long  dwelled 
on  the  possibilities  of  creating  an  ideal  material  to  serve  all  the 
functions  of  the  wall  cheaply  and  efficiently.20 

Nearly  every  prefabricator  manufactured  some  major  part  of  the 
house  walls,  and  many  manufactured  nothing  but  the  walls  and 
were  looking  forward  to  the  day  when  they  could  get  into  the 
extensive  non-residential  field  as  well.  Yet  to  manufacture  the  walls, 
or  walls  and  roof,  leaving  the  bulk  of  the  house  to  be  provided 
locally,  is  to  realize  only  a  part  of  the  potential  advantages  of  pre- 
fabrication;  indeed,  because  of  the  number  and  variety  of  openings 
required,  some  prefabricators  claim  that  it  is  more  difficult  to  manu 
facture  walls  than  floors,  ceilings,  or  roofs.  To  most  of  the  companies 
in  our  survey,  however,  considerations  of  rationalization  for  large- 
volume  production,  or  of  marketing  only  stock  components  for 
assembly  as  desired  by  the  local  purchaser,  were  not  important. 
These  companies  were  out  to  make  a  profit  by  simplifying  somewhat, 
improving  somewhat,  or  lowering  costs  somewhat,  without  substan 
tially  altering  the  normal  house  as  it  is  known  and  as  it  has  become 
acceptable  to  the  public.  The  system  developed  for  the  production 
of  walls  was,  in  most  cases,  at  the  heart  of  the  whole  scheme. 


2.  Frame  Assembly 

Precut  houses.  There  was  a  steady  production  of  what  was  known 
to  the  trade  as  a  "precut"  house,  in  which  not  only  the  walls  but  the 
whole  structural  frame  and  much  of  the  finishing  material  were  pre 
cut  and  shipped  in  a  single  house  package.  Such  a  package  rarely 

20  Walls  and  partitions  represent  from  30%  to  40%  of  the  total  construction  cost 
of  a  house  if  millwork  and  interior  and  exterior  finishing  are  included. 

210 


contained  more  than  the  necessary  wooden  pieces  and  possibly  some 
roofing  or  flooring  materials  in  addition.  Although  this  system  may 
offer  a  few  specialized  advantages  (for  example,  minimum  bulk  for 
export  purposes),  it  is  basically  a  conventional  frame  structure  with 
marketing  advantages  depending  on  price  and  convenience  rather 
than  design.  In  fact,  in  most  cases,  the  precut  houses  were  clearly 
not  better  designed  from  the  architectural  viewpoint  than  the  aver 
age  conventional  house. 

At  the  time  of  the  survey  the  National  Retail  Lumber  Dealers 
Association  had  offered  the  "industry-engineered  house,"  based  on 
modular  coordination  in  wood  frame  design,  efficient  precutting,  and 
a  rational  assembly  system.21  The  Peerless  Housing  Company,  Inc., 
was  also  at  work  on  precut  houses  of  advanced  design,  making  use 
of  special  assemblies  such  as  trusses  and  girts  and  millwork  of  stand 
ardized  parts  to  obviate  the  need  of  more  complicated  assembly,  and 
further  simplifying  erection  operations  by  procedures  designed  to 
eliminate  the  chance  of  confusing  the  various  precut  pieces— a  chance 
which,  together  with  the  tendency  of  the  local  erection  crew  readily 
to  give  up  the  search  for  required  pieces  and  cut  other  pieces  to  fit, 
has  long  been  a  special  difficulty  of  the  precut  house. 

Frame  and  curtain  wall  construction.  This  usually  involved  wide- 
spaced  framing  members  which  wholly  support  the  roof  system, 
leaving  no  structural  function  for  the  "curtain  walls"  applied  to  these 
members.  In  some  cases  these  systems  can  be  termed  "exoskeleton" 
systems  since  their  framing  members  are  exposed  on  at  least  one 
side  of  the  wall.  As  such  they  have  an  unconventional  and  not 
unattractive  appearance. 

Such  a  system  was  used  in  the  house  designed  by  the  John  B. 
Pierce  Foundation  and  produced  primarily  as  the  Celotex  Cemesto 
House  (see  Figure  24).  This  house  had  4"  X  4"  posts  as  much  as 
12'  o.c.,  with  the  edges  of  the  Cemesto  22  board  curtain  panels  en 
closed  within  the  posts  themselves,  and  with  the  roof  load  carried 
to  the  posts  by  built-up  plywood  girders  placed  horizontally  at  the 
top  of  the  posts.  Above  the  4'  high  tier  of  Cemesto  panels  placed 
above  the  floor  and  its  capping  lumber  member  came  a  second  tier 
which,  because  it  served  no  structural  function,  provided  a  great 
deal  of  freedom  for  the  location  of  windows  and  other  openings. 
The  system  was  used  extensively  during  the  recent  war  (together 

21  The  "industry-engineered  house"  plan  was  used  by  the  University  of  Illinois 
Small  Homes  Council  for  its  time  study  of  construction  methods,  Research  Report 
on  Construction  Methods. 

22  A  sandwich  board  made  up  of  fiberboard  filler  with  asbestos  cement  facings. 

211 


with  a  vertical  type  using  posts  spaced  4'  o.c.  and  eliminating  the 
special  top  girder),  and  the  free  fenestration  and  low  cost  appear 
to  have  overbalanced  the  special  requirements  of  the  system:  high 
precision  millwork  in  dimensioning  the  framing  members,  and  care 
ful  protection  of  the  edges  of  the  Cemesto  panel  against  fracture  in 
handling  and  against  moisture  in  use.  Many  such  houses  have  been 
erected  since  the  war  by  private  builders. 

One  such  builder,  Modern  Standardized  Buildings  Co.,  made  use 
of  the  4'  spaced  post  and  Cemesto  panel  system  in  a  variation  specially 
designed  to  avoid  the  costs  of  select  grade  lumber,  millwork  con 
struction,  and  other  expensive  finishing  detail,  and  to  take  advan 
tage  of  the  properties  of  protective  mastics  and  paints.  The  design 
was  expected  to  yield  cost  savings  even  with  small  production  volume 
because  of  simplified  production  and  erection  procedures. 

Another  frame  and  curtain  wall  system  of  interest  was  the  so-called 
"Ratio  Structures"  house  of  Wiener,  Sert,  and  Schulz,  developed 
during  the  recent  war.23  Exterior  wooden  posts  13'  4"  o.c.  supported 
longitudinal  beams  and  tie  beams  which  in  turn  supported  a  series  of 
curved  plywood-covered  panels  to  form  a  continuous  arched  roof.  A 
secondary  framing  system  in  the  walls,  using  a  spacing  module  of 
3' 4",  was  filled  with  solid  insulated  wall  panels,  windows,  or  doors, 
as  the  case  might  be.  Interior  partitions  in  the  temporary  war 
projects  which  used  this  system  were  built  up  of  laminated  fiberboard 
on  wood  frames  and  jointed  by  the  use  of  plywood  splines,  and 
fiberboard  ceilings  were  hung  from  the  tier  beams.  This  system, 
like  the  Pierce  system,  offered  great  elasticity  in  the  design  of  open 
ings,  but  the  secondary  framing  system  tended  to  be  a  needless  and 
somewhat  wasteful  duplication  of  the  primary  roof  support  system. 

Production  Line  Structures  offered  a  good  example  of  another 
frame  and  curtain  wall  system  of  special  interest  (see  Figure  25). 
In  this  system,  half  frames  composed  of  wooden  members  and 
nailed  plywood  gussets  were  brought  together  at  the  site  to  form, 
in  effect,  three-hinged  arches  4'  o.c.;  these  were  tied  together  at  the 
ridge  and  eaves  by  longitudinal  members  and  at  the  lower  ends  by 
plywood  panel  members.  Continuous  openings  between  structural 
members  above  these  panels  were  filled  in  at  the  site  by  wood 
awning-type  windows  or  by  solid  panels,  as  the  location  might  dic 
tate.  End  walls  were  light  framed  and  plywood  covered,  and  they 
served  structurally  only  as  stiffeners.  The  house  was  designed  for 

23  Modern  Designs  for  Prefabricated  and  Demountable  Buildings,  Office  of 
Production  Research  and  Development  (Washington,  1944). 

212 


ready  production,  in  a  standard  width  but  in  any  multiple  of  4'  in 
length,  by  the  use  of  standard  parts.  This  design  was  suitable 
primarily  to  warm  climates;  its  contemporary  quality  may  be  shown 
by  the  fact  that  it  received  first  citation  in  the  1946  Progressive  Archi 
tecture  Awards. 

Metal  walls.  In  this  group  were  metal  systems  ranging  from  those 
which  largely  imitate  wood  frame  structure  to  those  in  which  some 
element  of  stressed  skin  design  is  employed  in  order  to  take  advan 
tage  of  the  possibilities  offered  by  metal  for  production  of  thin, 
strong,  and  standard  sheets.  In  metal  structures  the  line  cannot 
easily  be  drawn  between  frame  assembly,  frame  panels,  and  stressed 
skin  panels.  Classification  of  a  system  often  depended  upon 
whether,  at  the  time  of  the  survey,  the  framing  members  went  to 
the  site  as  separate  elements  or  preassembled  into  panels,  or  whether 
at  that  time  the  manufacturer  was  shipping  out  his  parts  "knocked 
down"  or  had  the  time  and  factory  space  to  do  a  certain  amount  of 
preassembly.  In  general,  if  panels  of  some  sort  were  preassembled, 
the  system  was  classed  as  frame  panel,  and  if  great  reliance  was 
placed  on  stressed  skin  design,  the  system  was  considered  under  that 
heading. 

Typical  of  the  steel  systems  in  which  metal  studs  serve  simply  to 
replace  wooden  studs  was  that  put  on  the  market  by  Stran-Steel,  in 
which  the  stud  was  specially  designed  to  permit  nailing  into  it. 
Nevertheless,  the  Stran-Steel  Arch  Rib  Homes— an  outgrowth  of  the 
wartime  "Quonset"  huts— were  very  different  from  wood  design. 
They  produced  a  structure  of  semicircular  arch  section,  enclosing 
the  house  volume  with  substantially  less  material  and  avoiding  the 
difficulties  usually  encountered  at  the  juncture  between  roof  and 
wall.  In  this  system,  corrugated  sheet-metal  cladding  was  applied 
to  the  exterior  side  of  steel  ribs  spaced  2'  o.c.,  with  paint,  special 
protective  coating,  or  insulation  used  according  to  the  circumstances. 
In  many  cases,  roof  sheets  were  raised  from  the  main  framing  to 
permit  continuous  ventilation  under  the  roof.  Windows,  doors,  and 
other  openings  along  the  sides  of  the  structure  ordinarily  were  verti 
cally  framed  bay  extensions  of  the  structure,  often  in  wood.  The 
final  product  was  used  in  many  different  situations,  frequently  pro 
ducing  very  interesting  variants  on  the  usual  themes  of  domestic 
architecture. 

In  systems  of  this  sort  special  care  has  to  be  taken  to  avoid  con 
densation  resulting  from  contact  between  the  highly  conductive 
metal  skin  and  the  frame.  The  use  of  horizontal  rather  than  vertical 
corrugation  helps  to  reduce  the  area  of  continuous  contact  between 

213 


these  two,  and  the  furring  out  of  interior  wall  surfaces  on  wood 
battens,  the  separation  of  skin  from  frame  by  insulating  felt  or  rubber 
strip,  and  the  provision  of  weep  holes  and  drip  on  the  inside  of  the 
wall  to  permit  escape  of  moisture  which  accumulates  on  the  under 
side  of  the  skin,  are  examples  of  other  design  devices  employed  to 
improve  the  residential  qualities  of  this  sort  of  construction. 

A  frame  assembly  house  construction  system  of  aluminum  was 
offered  by  the  Fox  Metal  Products  Corporation.  In  this  system,  the 
basic  framing  member  was  made  up  of  two  6"  channels  of  0.064" 
thickness  bolted  back  to  back  to  form  an  I  section  into  which  facings 
and  insulation  could  be  screwed  or  nailed;  the  I  sections  were  spaced 
2'  o.c.  Exterior  surfacing  was  0.040"  thickness  aluminum  sheet, 
crimped  for  stiffness  in  such  a  way  as  to  resemble  clapboards.  The 
crimping  reduced  the  area  of  contact  between  exterior  surface  and 
frame,  and  further  protection  was  offered  by  an  insulating  strip  of 
asphalted  felt.  The  interior  surface  was  generally  %"  Upson24 
board,  applied  over  a  V  blanket  of  compressible  insulation  where 
required  by  climate,  and  held  in  place  by  cold-rolled  vertical  alumi 
num  batten  strips.  Partitions  were  formed  of  4"  I-section  channels 
having  Upson  board  on  both  surfaces.  The  roof  structure  was  much 
the  same  as  the  wall,  with  additional  insulation  and  with  a  layer  of 
Upson  board  placed  immediately  beneath  the  exterior  surface  as 
well.  No  further  finishing  was  required  for  wall  or  roof  surfaces. 
Windows  were  wood  framed  casements,  placed  in  the  2'  space  be 
tween  studs.25 

Another  frame  assembly  house,  basically  of  steel,  was  that  of  the 
Harman  Corporation.  This  house  was  one  of  the  earliest  to  receive  a 
guaranteed  market  contract  (for  4,200  houses),  and  it  was  later  widely 
publicized  by  the  failure  of  the  company.  This  house  used  the 
Lindsay  trailer  body  structural  system  in  applying  thin  sheet  steel 
(26  gauge  on  walls,  24  gauge  on  roof,  galvanized)  in  tension  as  an 
exterior  surface  over  steel  wall  studs  and  roof  trusses  39"  o.c.  When 
completed  at  the  site,  therefore,  this  became  a  stressed  skin  system, 
with  the  skin  bracing  the  entire  structure.  An  interior  lining  of 
insulation  and  wallboard  was  furred  out  from  the  steel  members  with 
wooden  strips,  and  insulated  partitions  were  made  of  light  steel 

24  Upson  board  is  a  laminated  fiberboard  available  in  room-sized  panels. 

25  More  recently,  Fox  Metal  Products  Corporation  has  supplanted  this  model 
with  its  Marquette  home,  which  varies  from  this  description  in  many  respects, 
particularly  in  the  use  of  plywood  interior  finish,  of  more  extensive  insulation, 
and  of  a  peaked  roof  finished  with  sheathing  lumber,  asphalt-saturated  felt,  and 
asphalt  shingles. 

214 


framing  members  with  wallboard  applied  to  both  sides.  Windows 
were  of  the  steel  casement  type.  The  exterior  was  finished  with  a 
special  paint,  designed  to  derive  added  weather  protection  from 
imbedded  grains  of  stone  and  similar  to  stucco  in  appearance.  Har- 
man  did  a  substantial  amount  of  engineering  in  adopting  various 
existing  and  new  materials  to  the  final  house,  but  the  company 
operated  primarily  as  an  assembly  plant,  purchasing  most  of  its 
components  elsewhere,  and  it  was  notable  for  the  completeness  of 
the  package  furnished  from  the  plant.  The  system  inherently  re 
quired  a  good  deal  of  relatively  skilled  site  labor  and  led  to  unusually 
high  erection  costs. 

A  metal  frame  assembly  house  even  better  known  not  so  long  ago 
was  the  hemispherical  Fuller  house  (see  Figure  28).  The  entire 
weight  of  this  structure  was  borne  by  a  central  mast  composed  of 
seven  high-strength  alloy  steel  tubes  bound  together.  The  mast 
rested  in  a  concrete  footing,  and  three  steel  rings  were  hung  from 
the  top  of  the  mast,  one  below  the  other  in  widening  circles.  These 
rings  changed  the  direction  and  fixed  the  position  of  the  tension 
wires  which  supported  the  structure.  The  tension  wires  were  fas 
tened  to  the  top  of  the  mast  and  supported  the  outer  edge  of  the 
circular  floor  structure,  which  was  composed  of  wedge-shaped  pressed 
aluminum  floor  beams  with  their  narrow  ends  supported  by  the  central 
mast.  Curved  ribs,  acting  in  principle  like  those  of  an  umbrella, 
supported  the  roof  skin  of  aluminum.  The  side  walls  were  curved 
double  aluminum  sheets  with  space  between  for  insulation.  Since 
the  interior  was  entirely  free  of  structural  members  with  the  excep 
tion  of  the  central  mast,  the  room  arrangement  was  quite  flexible. 
The  final  house  was  a  metal  stressed  skin  structure,  but  it  was  con 
templated  that  it  would  be  shipped  knocked  down,  with  its  various 
framing  members  and  skins  packaged  into  a  cylindrical  container 
4%'  in  diameter  and  16'  long,  so  it  is  therefore  classified  here  as  a 
metal  frame  assembly. 

Chart  E  presents  a  general  summary  of  the  construction  details 
of  the  twelve  companies  using  frame  assembly  in  their  walls.  The 
great  variety  of  systems  falling  under  this  heading  is  immediately 
apparent. 


215 


Chan  E 


Frame  Assembly  Wall 
12  Companies 


Frame  members 


Insulation 


Vapor  barrier 


Exterior  structural  cladding 


Exterior  finish 


9 

wood 

4 

steel 

5 

2"  X  4" 

4 

16"  o.c. 

4 

24"  o.c. 

1 

4'  o.c. 

7 

nailed 

4 

bolted 

1 

glued  and  nailed 

2 

metal  foil 

2 

gypslim  board 

2 

metal  foil 

1 

paper 

1 

asphalt  membrane 

4 

wood 

2 

fiberboard 

2 

plywood 

7 

nailed 

3 

screwed  or  bolted 

1 

glued  and  nailed 

1 

troweled 

2 

wood  siding 

2 

wood  cladding 

2 

metal  cladding 

2 

fiberboard 

3 

nailed 

3 

special 

2 

screwed  or  bolted 

1 

troweled 

216 


Interior  surface 


5 

gypsum  board 

4 

lath  and  plaster 

2 

plywood 

4 

nailed 

4 

troweled 

3 

screwed  or  bolted 

1 

glued  and  nailed 

3.  Frame  Panels 

The  most  common  form  of  frame  panel  walls  consisted  simply  of 
framing  members  assembled  together  with  exterior  surfacing  ele 
ments.  Interior  surfacing  was  commonly  field  applied  in  order  to 
facilitate  field  installation  of  plumbing,  heating,  and  wiring  and  to 
simplify  the  application  of  acceptable  interior  finish. 

It  is  interesting  to  note  that  two  of  the  largest  producers  of  houses 
in  this  category  26  ( both  of  which  combined  pref abrication  and  site- 
fabrication  techniques)  used  stucco  for  at  least  part  of  the  exterior 
surface.  This  serves  to  illustrate  the  fact  that  strict  rules  cannot 
be  laid  down  for  the  prefabrication  process,  for  combinations  of  fa 
vorable  climatic  conditions,  projects  large  enough  to  permit  efficient 
techniques  of  application  (in  this  case  gunite),  and  highly  organized 
construction  systems  can  turn  to  competitive  advantage  even  the  wet 
processes  often  considered  incompatible  with  prefabrication.  It  is 
foolish,  therefore,  to  attempt  to  discover  an  absolute  scale  of  values 
or  an  ideal  to  which  various  systems  may  be  compared.  It  cannot 
too  often  be  emphasized  that  design  must  be  considered  in  a  very 
broad  sense,  embracing  the  whole  production  and  marketing  scheme 
of  the  prefabricator.  Nevertheless,  the  smallest  details  of  design 
have  a  considerable  interest  of  their  own  and  are  also  properly  the 
subject  of  consideration. 

Panel  size.  Ordinarily  the  factors  controlling  size  are  the  bulk  and 
weight  which  can  easily  be  manhandled  in  the  field.  With  the 
exception  of  the  few  producers  of  modular  panels,  whose  aim  in 
brief  was  to  produce  a  rather  more  complex  variety  of  stock  build 
ing  material,  there  has  been  a  noticeable  tendency,  not  clearly  re 
flected  in  the  data,  to  use  the  largest  panel  practicable  in  the  field, 
thereby  cutting  down  on  erection  labor  and  field  jointing,  among 

26  Kaiser  Community  Homes  and  the  Byrne  Organization. 

277 


other  things.27  With  this  in  mind,  several  producers  had  changed 
their  3'  or  4'  modular  panels  to  room-size,  or  even  wall-size,  panels. 

Field  joints  have  become  to  most  prefabricators  a  design  problem 
of  the  greatest  importance.  Many  of  them  firmly  believe  that  verti 
cal  battens  or  any  other  external  indication  of  joints,  particularly 
on  the  exterior  of  the  house,  will  be  considered  objectionable  by  a 
substantial  part  of  their  potential  market,  and  some  of  them  feel  that 
it  is  important  to  conceal  from  the  public  the  fact  that  the  house  is 
prefabricated  at  all.  And  it  must  be  conceded  that  there  has  been 
some  justification  for  this  concern  about  the  public  reaction  to  visible 
joints. 

This  becomes,  then,  a  limiting  factor  on  the  extent  of  factory 
application  of  surfacing  materials,  and  many  prefabricators  have 
made  a  practice  of  leaving  finish  siding,  facing,  or  shingling  as  a 
field  chore  in  order  to  conceal  joints.  The  use  of  room-size  panels, 
on  the  other  hand,  offers  the  opportunity  to  conceal,  eliminate,  or 
finish  with  precision  methods  in  the  plant  the  joints  of  inside  wall 
surfacing  materials.  It  also  becomes  possible  to  reduce  the  exterior 
joints  to  one  or  two  per  wall  and  to  disguise  these  by  locating  them 
at  natural  breaks  in  the  elevation  or  by  concealing  them  behind 
downspouts  or  other  exterior  details. 

A  few  companies  carried  this  a  step  further  and  produced  wall- 
size  panels,  but  since  these  usually  require  special  handling  equip 
ment  at  the  site,  they  tend  to  be  limited  to  specialized  situations. 
Nevertheless,  as  finishing  materials  become  commercially  available 
in  larger  sheets  and  as  new  lightweight  walls  are  perfected  (such  as 
the  plastic-impregnated  paper-core  sandwich  walls),  this  trend  to 
wards  larger  panel  size  will  probably  continue. 

Joints.  A  great  deal  of  ingenuity  has  been  exercised  to  develop 
joints  28  that  will  be  at  the  same  time  simple  to  produce,  hard  to 
damage  in  transit  or  at  the  site,  easy  to  erect  in  the  field,  and  satis 
factory  in  terms  of  performance  in  the  final  house.  Refinements  in 
clude  joints  which  permit  panels  to  be  put  together  either  way  rather 
than  only  one  way  (such  as  left  to  right),  three-way  joints  for  places 
where  interior  partitions  join  exterior  walls,  and  joints  which  will 
connect  standardized  ceiling,  roof,  and  floor  panels  as  well  as  wall 

27  When  Harnischfeger  shifted  from  modular  to  room-sized  panels,  considerably 
less  framing  lumber  was  required,  as  well  as  many  fewer  kinds  of  parts. 

28  All  panel  systems  and  many  other  systems  require  field  joints.     Although 
they  are  first  discussed  here,  their  applicability  is  in  no  way  limited  to  frame 
panels. 

218 


panels.  Of  at  least  some  importance  in  selecting  a  joint  system 
has  been  the  possibility  of  getting  patents  on  it. 

By  and  large,  the  majority  of  the  prefabricated  houses  produced 
during  the  period  of  the  survey  were  of  wood  construction,  and  the 
detailed  problems  of  joint  designs  adequate  for  such  systems  need 
not  be  considered  here  since  they  are  adequately  discussed  else 
where.29  The  importance  generally  accorded  the  joint  is  so  great, 
however,  that  a  brief  summary  of  the  various  types  is  presented 
here.  These  joints  are  illustrated  in  Figure  18. 

A  single  or  double  lap  joint  is  formed  by  the  butting  of  contiguous 
skin  sheets,  on  one  or  on  both  surfaces,  over  a  common  framing  mem 
ber  to  which  one  skin  sheet  is  usually  bonded  in  the  factory  and  the 
other  in  the  field.  Such  a  joint  is  referred  to  in  the  industry  as  a 
male  and  female  joint.  The  common  member  may,  of  course,  be  a 
filler  strip  which  fits  into  recessed  edges  on  both  panels,  and  in  this 
case  it  approaches  a  spline  in  character. 

Batten  strips  can  be  used  to  join  two  panels  which  are  butted 
together,  and  they  usually  increase  the  weathertightness  of  the 
joint.  The  batten  is  one  of  the  oldest  and  simplest  of  joint  methods, 
but  there  is  a  marked  tendency  to  avoid  it  because  of  the  belief  that 
the  general  public  will  not  tolerate  such  a  sign  of  transitory  character 
in  a  permanent  house. 

The  spline  is  usually  a  continuous  joint,  and  it  is  popular  because 
it  permits  use  of  the  same  simple  field  device  at  either  edge  of  the 
panel  and  because  it  permits  flush  finishing  in  the  factory  of  both 
frame  and  surfacing  materials— an  advantage  in  transporting  and 
handling  and  in  certain  manufacturing  and  finishing  operations. 
This  involves  somewhat  more  millwork  than  the  previous  joints,  and, 
since  most  prefabricators  prefer  not  to  nail  in  the  spline  directly 
through  the  surface  skin  because  this  means  a  nail  head  or  hole  to 
conceal,  the  structural  tie  achieved  is  often  not  so  strong  as  in  the 
case  of  other  joints.  The  spline  joint  is,  therefore,  generally  used  to 
close  vertical  gaps  and  line  up  panels  vertically,  and  rarely  if  ever  to 
make  horizontal  connections. 

The  interlocking  joint  is  the  most  complex  type  of  joint,  mostly 
used  for  panels  having  both  surfaces  applied  and  finished  in  the 
factory.  It  requires  a  dimensional  precision  which  is  not  easy  to 
realize  in  ordinary  framing  woods,  and  may  involve  extensive  mill- 
work.  Because  of  differential  shrinkage  in  wood,  for  instance,  Z 
joints  have  frequently  given  trouble.  Frequently  special  metal  parts 

29  Manual  on  Wood  Construction  for  Prefabricated  Houses,  Chapter  13. 

219 


Double  lap 
(also  called 
male  and  female) 
Single  lap  has  only 
one  face  lapping 
adjacent  framing 
member 


Butt  and  batten 


Spline 


Interlocking 


Figure  18.     Commonly   Used  Panel  Joints 


are  designed  to  speed  up  or  improve  field  operation,  and  nearly  all 
such  joints  are  patented.  Occasionally,  these  joints  seem  to  have 
been  designed  with  more  proprietary  pride  than  logic,  and  some 
seem  to  cause  more  difficulties  than  they  solve. 

Interlocking  joints  may  have  extra  features,  however,  as  when 
the  design  gives  the  added  elasticity  of  permitting  panels  to  be 
attached  horizontally  as  well  as  vertically  and  thus  makes  possible 
the  production  of  stock  modular  panels  as  a  building  material  for 
assembly  according  to  design  of  the  local  architect  or  builder. 

Nearly  all  exterior  joints  require  some  sort  of  caulking  to  make 
them  weathertight,  and  the  ideal  caulking  material  is  still  to  be 
found.  In  the  case  of  most  materials  the  edges  of  the  exterior  sur 
facing  itself  must  be  carefully  protected  as  well.  Of  course,  where 
exterior  joints  are  concealed  by  field-applied  (or  field-finished)  sid 
ing  or  shingling,  no  such  problem  arises. 

Wood  frame  panels.  Examples  of  this  type  of  construction  were 
produced  by  Kaiser  Community  Homes  (see  Figure  29).  A  com 
pletely  standardized  one-story  house  "chassis"  was  produced  in  the 
factory  (45%  of  the  work)  and  individualized  to  some  extent  in 
the  course  of  the  field  finishing.  This  chassis  consisted  of  room- 
size  panels  made  up  of  2"  X  4"  studs  to  which  %"  plywood  was 
glued  and  stapled  to  serve  as  interior  wallboard.30  Windows  and 
doors  were  fitted  or  hung  in  their  frames  in  the  walls  in  the  plant. 
The  panels  were  spiked  together  in  the  field,  and  chicken  wire  was 
applied  over  building  paper  as  a  base  for  the  application  of  an 
exterior  finish  of  stucco,  to  which  areas  of  siding  or  shingling  were 
added  for  variation  in  appearance.  Interior  partitions  were  in  some 
cases  factory-built  storagewalls  (entirely  utilized  for  closets,  shelves, 
drawers,  and  the  like)  and  in  some  cases  stressed  skin  panels  (de 
scribed  in  the  next  section).  Inside  surfaces  were  finished  with  a 
fabric-base  wallpaper.  At  the  time  of  the  survey,  about  3,000  of 
these  houses  had  been  built  in  the  Los  Angeles  area. 

Another  example  was  the  house  built  by  the  Defoe  Shipbuilding 
Co.,  the  walls  of  which  were  frame  panels  from  4'  to  12'  in  width, 
made  up  of  standard  2"  X  4"  studs  16"  o.c.,  %"  fiberboard  sheathing, 
and  plasterboard  interior  surface,  taped  and  filled  at  the  site  to 
present  a  smooth  and  unbroken  appearance.  With  both  surfaces 
factory  applied,  a  special  joint  was  necessary,  and  an  interlocking 

30  Both  gluing  and  stapling  or  nailing  are  frequently  used  in  this  way  to  give 
added  rigidity  and  thereby  eliminate  much  of  the  need  of  bracing  in  the  walls 
and  bridging  in  the  floors.  The  staples  or  nails  serve  principally  to  apply  pressure 
until  the  glue  sets. 

221 


joint  was  used,  requiring  some  millwork.  At  the  site  joining  was 
accomplished  by  diagonal  nailing  from  the  outside,  with  the  final 
joints  concealed  by  exterior  siding.  Aside  from  the  joints  and  the 
factory  application  of  surfacing,  insulation,  windows,  and  doors, 
there  was  little  to  distinguish  this  house  from  the  conventional  wood 
frame  house.  In  that  sense,  it  was  typical  of  a  large  group  of  pre 
fabricated  houses,  more  of  which  have  probably  been  built  and  sold 
since  the  end  of  the  war  than  any  other  type.  Many  of  these  com 
panies,  while  maintaining  profitable  operations  with  this  sort  of 
house,  are  at  the  same  time  working  on  more  unconventional  designs 
for  eventual  production. 

Metal  frame  panels.  Houses  using  this  type  of  construction  were 
far  less  conventional  than  those  we  have  just  discussed  (see  Figure 
19).  The  widely  advertised  Lustron  house  was  a  good  case  in  point. 
Here  the  frame  consisted  of  steel  studs,  rolled  in  special  "hat"  sec 
tions  and  welded  2'  o.c.  on  both  sides  of  horizontal  "hat"  section 
members,  with  channel  members  welded  in  between  the  studs  as 
bracing.  Window  and  door  framing  were  also  welded  into  the 
panel,  and  the  whole  framing  system  then  got  a  bonderizing  coat 
and  a  sluiced-on  protective  enamel  coat.  The  interior  and  exterior 
surfaces  were  steel  pans  finished  with  vitreous  enamel,  as  were  the 
roof  and  ceiling  surfaces,  and  all  were  attached  in  the  field  except 
ing  those  in  the  special  bay  window  section,  which  was  factory 
assembled.  The  vitreous  enamel  finish  was  available  in  a  variety 
of  colors,  and  it  offered  a  relatively  permanent,  easily  cleaned  surface. 
For  heating,  the  house  had  a  plenum  chamber  over  the  ceiling  pans, 
converting  these  into  a  radiant  ceiling,  and  insulation  was  factory 
applied  to  the  inside  of  the  exterior  steel  pans  and  field  applied 
over  the  top  of  the  plenum  chamber.  Through-metal  contact  and 
resulting  condensation  were  minimized  by  continuing  the  insula 
tion  between  the  metal  studs  and  exterior  pans.  Weather  bond 
between  pans  was  achieved  by  extruded  gaskets  of  Koroseal  specially 
designed  to  seal  the  joint  between  the  flanges  of  the  pans.  This 
house  was  notable  for  the  completeness  of  the  package  offered 
through  the  chain  of  Lustron  dealers,  and  for  the  utility  room  offer 
ing  bulk  storage  within  the  house.31  The  standard  two-bedroom 
house  was  about  1,000  sq.  ft.  in  floor  area,  or  substantially  larger 
than  the  average  prefabricated  house.  The  three-bedroom  house 
contained  more  than  1,200  sq.  ft. 

31  The  house  was  basementless  and  had  a  floor  of  asphalt  tile  over  concrete 
grade  beam  and  slab. 

222 


Another  metal  frame  panel  house  was  that  built  in  a  1,200-house 
project  at  Harundale,  Md.,  by  the  Byrne  Organization  in  a  combina 
tion  of  pref abrication  and  site-fabrication  techniques  32  ( see  Figure 
28).  Here  Macomber-type  steel  studs  (rolled  to  give  a  "hat-shaped" 
section)  were  used,  with  two  opposed  sections  spaced  by  welded 
tie  rods  to  make  a  complete  wall  stud.  The  complete  studs  were  in 
turn  assembled  into  steel  frame  panels  in  a  shop  at  the  site,  a  1" 
glass  fiberboard  laid  over  the  exterior  of  these  panels,  and  a  paper 
backed  wire  mesh  pinned  through  the  fiberboard  to  the  panels  by  a 
special  welding  machine  for  stucco  finish.  The  paper  acted  as  a 
weather  barrier,  and  the  insulation  near  the  outside  surface  pro 
tected  the  steel  members  from  falling  below  dew  point  and  causing 
condensation,  while  two  coats  of  special  aluminum  paint  on  plaster 
served  as  a  vapor  barrier.  The  structure  was  placed  on  a  radiant- 
heated  floor  slab  and  stucco  applied  as  an  outside  surface  in  the 
field.  Initially,  before  the  company  turned  to  the  use  of  aluminum 
paint,  vapor-barrier  paper  with  wire  lath  had  been  nailed  on  the 
inside  to  the  frame  in  the  shop  and  plaster  applied  in  the  field.  Walls 
were  vented  into  the  roof  space  to  assist  in  carrying  off  any  vapor 
accumulation  which  might  occur.  Interior  partitions  were  site 
assembled,  and  the  wall  panels  and  roof  trusses  were  welded  together 
at  the  site  to  form  a  continuous  rigid  frame  structure,  far  stronger 
than  required  by  codes. 

A  very  different  type  of  metal  construction  was  offered  by  General 
Homes.  Although  this  was  primarily  a  frame  panel  construction, 
reliance  was  also  placed  in  part  upon  stressed  skin  principles.  The 
core  of  the  panel  consisted  of  0.032"  aluminum  sheet,  shaped  into 
continuous  trapezoidal  sections  4"  high  and  6"  center  to  center. 
The  surface,  inner  and  outer,  was  0.032"  aluminum  skin  bonded  to 
%"  fiberboard  sheets.  This  surface  was  screwed  to  the  shaped  core 
in  sheets  2'  o.c.  through  aluminum  trim  strips.  Aluminum  straps, 
2'  o.c.  and  riveted  to  the  core  horizontally,  added  stiffening.  Panels 
were  locked  together  in  the  field  by  tabs  punched  out  of  channels  in 
the  end  of  the  panels.  In  the  shop  4"  batts  of  insulation  were  in 
serted  into  the  cores,  and  all  metal  surfaces  shop  coated  with  zinc 
chromate  primer.  A  simple  screw  attachment  in  the  field  was  used 
to  install  windows  in  special  framing  prepared  in  the  shop. 

32  The  recent  financial  troubles  of  this  project  have  caused  a  great  deal  of 
speculation  about  the  principles  of  location,  site  planning,  design,  and  fabrication 
used  by  the  Byrne  Organization.  Needless  to  say,  blame  cannot  be  firmly  fixed. 

223 


Porcelain 

enamel 

gutter 

Porcelain 
enamel 
ventilated 
eave  panel 

Porcelain 
enamel 
roof  panel 

Top  stud 
spacer 

Roof  truss 

Vertical  wall 
studs 

Koroseai 
gasket 

2-0"x2'-0" 
porcelain 
enamel 
exterior  panels 

Anchor  bolt 

Bottom  stud 
spacer 

Premolded 
asphalt 
joint  strip 

8"  concrete 
foundation  wall 


Porcelain 
enamel 
gable  end 
panel 


Insulation 
supports 


Floor  slab 


Figure  19.    Metal  Construction  Systems:  ( 1 )  Lustron 


Asbestos  shingles 
Building  paper 
Steel  gutter 

Hat  shaped 
section 
roof  truss 


Hat  shaped 
section 
steel  studs 

Steel  base 

Steel  stud 
spacer 

Asphalt  tile 
floor 

Rigid 
insulation 


Plywood 
sheathing 

Fiberglas 
insulation 

\  Paper 
backed 
wire  mesh 

^Stucco 
Insulation 

Lower  truss 
member 

Metal  lath 
Plaster 
Vapor  seal 


Radiant  heating  coils 
'in  concrete  slabs 


Figure  19.     Metal  Construction  Systems:  (2)  Byrne  Organization 


Chart  F  gives  a  summary  of  the  construction  details  of  the  62 
companies  using  frame  panels  in  their  walls.  It  will  be  noted  at 
once  that  the  great  majority,  55  out  of  62,  used  wood  as  their  princi 
pal  material,  and  that,  of  these,  the  great  majority,  46  out  of  55, 
used  conventional  2"  X  4"  studs,  16"  o.c. 


Chart   F 


Frame  Panel  Wall 
62  Companies 


Frame  members 


Panel  size 


Joint 


Insulation 


Vapor  barrier 


55 

wood 

6 

steel 

1 

aluminum 

46 

2"  X4" 

6 

2"X3" 

49 

16"  o.c. 

6 

24"  o.c. 

53 

nailed 

5 

welded 

2 

glued  and  nailed 

22 

48" 

19 

room  size 

7 

wall  size 

40 

butt 

7 

interlock 

6 

batten 

11 

fiberboard 

7 

batts 

6 

metal  foil 

7 

metal  foil 

7 

insulation  backing 

4 

paper 

226 


Exterior  structural  cladding 


Exterior  finish 


Interior  surface 


27 

wood 

16 

plywood 

9 

fiber  board 

3 

steel 

2 

aluminum 

16 

1*  (wood) 

7 

M*  (plywood) 

6 

H"  (plywood) 

49 

nailed 

3 

glued  and  nailed 

52 

shop 

10 

field 

21 

wood  siding 

12 

wood  cladding  surface 

5 

metal  cladding  surface 

32 

shop 

27 

field 

16 

gypsum  board 

20 

optional 

9 

plywood 

7 

fiberboard 

35 

nailed 

4 

troweled 

3 

glued  and  nailed 

34 

field 

27 

shop 

4.  Stressed  Skin  Panels 

Lumber  and  plywood  panels.  Companies  using  this  system  of  con 
struction  varied  the  most,  as  a  group,  from  conventional  structural 
design,  and  they  represent  one  of  the  most  significant  developments 
in  the  field.  In  all,  32  companies  used  plywood  stressed  skin  panels.33 

83  It  has  been  noted  above  that  the  term  "stressed  skin"  is  somewhat  loosely 
applied  to  this  construction,  since  there  is  some  structural  reliance  on  the  framing 
members  themselves.  The  Forest  Products  Laboratory  prefers  the  term  "stressed- 
cover  panels"  in  this  connection,  and  other  terms  are  undoubtedly  in  use.  "Stressed 
skin"  is  nevertheless  retained  for  use  here  because  the  term  is  so  widely  familiar. 

227 


The  general  characteristics  of  this  system  include  smaller  con 
sumption  of  material  and  lighter  weight,  compared  to  conventional 
frame  systems,  achieved  at  the  same  time  as  increased  strength  and 
structural  stiffness.  Basically,  the  system  depends  on  the  strength 
developed  by  bonding  rigidly  together  by  means  of  specialized 
gluing  techniques  a  system  of  light  wood  framing  members  and  thin 
plywood  surface  sheets,  so  that  the  whole  acts  together  in  the  nature 
of  a  box  girder.  Such  a  panel,  when  correctly  made,  is  much 
stronger  and  stiff er  than  conventional  wood  frame  construction. 
Wall  thickness  can  be  substantially  less  than  that  of  conventional 
construction.  From  the  viewpoint  of  economy,  the  system  not  only 
uses  less  wood  than  conventional  construction,  but  has  the  further 
advantage  that  plywood  uses  a  larger  percentage  of  the  log  than  can 
be  made  into  lumber.  On  the  other  hand  the  quality  of  the  framing 
wood  must  in  most  cases  be  better.  Research  has  developed  water 
proof,  high-quality  glues  and  improved  techniques  for  binding  the 
surface  sheets  to  the  framing  members,  and  current  development 
work  on  the  composition  and  design  of  these  sheets  indicates  that 
further  improvements  are  to  be  expected  in  the  future. 

At  the  present  time,  the  quality  of  the  construction  is  such  that 
the  plywood  surfaces  can  be  used  for  interior  and  even  exterior 
finish,  although  there  is  still  some  difficulty  in  maintaining  good 
exterior  finish  on  plywood  exposed  to  the  weather.  In  this  respect, 
edge-grained  plywood  and  the  recent  redwood  plywood  perform 
better,  and  plastic  and  other  surface  coatings  further  improve  per 
formance.  The  framing  members,  because  of  their  smaller  section 
and  the  need  to  present  a  flat  surface  for  gluing,  are  somewhat  higher 
in  quality  than  ordinary  framing  and  in  some  cases  can  be  used 
by  prefabricators  as  actual  floor  and  window  framing,  thus  vastly 
reducing  requirements  for  trim  in  these  locations. 

Interior  partitions  are  frequently  of  the  same  construction,  even 
when  not  load  bearing,  because  of  the  availability  of  manufacturing 
facilities,  although  single  plywood  sheets,  practically  self-support 
ing,  are  occasionally  used  in  locations  such  as  closets  where  the 
sheet  is  not  the  sole  barrier  between  rooms. 

The  manner  in  which  some  of  the  new  technical  problems  pre 
sented  by  stressed  skin  plywood  panels  have  been  met  by  the  pre 
fabricators  is  of  interest,  particularly  since  in  many  cases  these  prob 
lems  are  also  faced  in  the  use  of  other  new  materials.  For  that  rea 
son,  a  few  of  the  most  significant  problems  will  be  discussed  here 
briefly. 

228 


Condensation.  A  construction  which  makes  the  wall  markedly  more 
airtight  creates  the  benefit  of  diminished  heat  loss  but  also  the  prob 
lem  of  diminished  vapor  permeation,  and  therefore  condensation. 
When  the  vapor  originating  within  a  house  in  cold  weather  cannot 
readily  escape  through  the  floors,  walls,  and  roof  (as  is  the  case 
with  stressed  skin  plywood  or  with  metal  panel  walls,  for  example), 
there  is  always  the  possibility  of  its  coming  in  contact  with  some 
frame  or  surfacing  element  which  has  been  cooled  by  outside  air  to 
a  temperature  below  the  dew  point.  At  the  point  of  such  contact 
condensation  occurs,  and  as  this  point  is  likely  to  be  within  the  wall 
structure  itself,  the  resulting  moisture  may  do  considerable  damage.34 
Among  the  prefabricators  using  stressed  skin  plywood  and  metal 
panels,  at  least  nine  were  using  special  ventilation  slots  within  the 
wall  space,  and  many  used  vapor  barriers  designed  to  reduce  the 
penetration  of  vapor  into  the  wall  structure  from  the  house  area. 

Among  the  most  commonly  used  vapor  barriers  were  asphalt  mem 
branes  laminated  with  kraft  paper  (and  frequently  backed  by  in 
sulation)  and  metal  foils.  The  performance  of  such  barriers  is  good 
only  when  they  are  carefully  fitted  and  tightly  fastened  in  place. 
In  the  common  examples  in  which  the  material  supposedly  serving 
as  a  vapor  barrier  was  not  even  tacked  or  stapled  in  place,  there  was 
serious  question  of  its  effectiveness. 

A  problem  of  detail  in  stressed  skin  construction  is  that  the  heads 
of  nails  or  staples  on  the  interior  surface  are  frequently  the  points 
at  which  there  may  be  condensation,  resulting  in  dark  spots  or  stains. 
Several  companies  sought  to  solve  this  problem  by  countersinking 
and  puttying  over  these  heads,  while  others  avoided  it  by  bonding 
the  plywood  to  the  frame  without  nails  or  staples,  through  the  use 
of  glues  set  with  hot  or  cold  presses. 

In  stressed  skin  plywood,  as  in  plaster  and  many  other  materials, 
a  combination  of  such  factors  as  the  static  charges  on  dust  particles 
and  the  differential  rate  of  thermal  and  vapor  conductivity  between 
the  sheet  alone  and  the  sheet  backed  by  framing  will  often  result 
in  the  collection  of  dust  and  dirt  in  such  a  way  as  to  show  on  the 
surface  the  pattern  of  framing  in  the  form  of  so-called  "shadow  lines." 
Some  prefabricators  sought  to  avoid  this  effect  by  developing  designs 
which  tended  to  equalize  thermal  and  moisture  conductivity  through- 

34  For  a  discussion  of  the  condensation  problems  in  some  fifty  different  wood 
and  metal  wall  and  roof  constructions  tested  in  the  Pennsylvania  State  College 
Climatometer  see  Ralph  R.  Britton,  "Condensation  in  Walls  and  Roofs,"  HHFA 
Technical  Paper,  nos.  1,  2,  3,  and  8  (March,  June,  and  September  1947;  April 
1948). 

229 


out.  Gunnison,  for  example,  fluted  the  framing  members  wherever 
they  came  in  contact  with  the  surface  skin  in  an  effort  to  reduce  this 
differential. 

Insulation.  The  only  common  characteristic  observed  among  com 
panies  in  this  respect  was  the  almost  complete  absence  of  loose  or 
fill-type  insulation  for  walls.  The  common  insulations  were  in  the 
form  of  sheets,  batts,  or  blankets,  usually  paper  backed;  and  the 
considerations  to  be  met  in  the  selection  of  an  insulating  material 
included  the  ease  of  handling  and  installation,  the  durability,  the 
insulative  quality,  and  the  amount  of  space  available  for  storage 
in  the  plant. 

Finishes.  As  a  result  of  the  development  of  waterproof  glues, 
delamination  of  plies  is  a  rare  occurrence  if  edges  are  well  protected, 
and  of  the  32  companies  using  stressed  skin  plywood  construction 
in  their  walls,  20  used  the  plywood  as  the  exterior  finish  material. 
A  good  deal  of  development  work  in  paints  and  sealers  has  helped 
to  make  this  possible,35  although  some  of  the  good  sealers,  such  as 
aluminum  flake,  have  been  little  used  by  prefabricators  because  they 
add  production  difficulties. 

Several  of  the  large  companies  were  using  the  relatively  new  de 
vice  of  bonding  plastic-impregnated  paper  to  the  plywood  to  serve 
as  an  exterior  surface  material  and  an  excellent  base  for  paint.  Other 
companies  made  use  of  striated  plywood,  the  scoring  of  which  tends 
to  conceal  any  checking  which  may  occur,  to  disguise  the  joints 
between  panels,  and  to  give  a  pleasantly  textured  finish.  On  inte 
riors,  where  neither  of  these  devices  was  used,  it  was  common  to 
find  a  rounding  or  beveling  of  the  edge  of  the  plywood  sheets,  in 
recognition  of  the  fact  that  expansion  and  contraction  of  the  panel 
surfaces  will  otherwise  eventually  make  visible  cracks  in  paint  or 
paper  surfacing  anyway. 

Nearly  all  the  companies  using  stressed  skin  plywood  panels 
without  further  interior  or  exterior  finishing  materials  designed  their 
houses  in  terms  of  modular  panel  widths  of  40"  or  4',  principally 
because  the  plywood  sheets  come  in  widths  of  4',  but  partly  also 
because  of  the  tendency  of  larger  panels  to  bulge  as  the  exterior  and 
interior  sheets  develop  large  differences  in  moisture  content.  Where 
additional  surfacing  materials  are  used,  this  tendency  can  be  rather 
easily  controlled. 

A  few  of  the  companies  prefinished  the  plywood  interior  in  the 
shop,  usually  with  tinted  sealers  and  lacquers  to  produce  a  subdued 

85  See  Manual  on  Wood  Construction  for  Prefabricated  Houses,  Chapter  7. 

230 


grain  finish.  Most  companies  finished  in  the  field,  taking  special 
precautions  to  combat  the  cracking  of  the  finish  materials  at  the 
joints.  One  method  used  for  this  purpose  was  taping  and  puttying, 
and  fabric-based  or  other  special  wallpaper  was  another.  Some  com 
panies  used  batten  strips,  taking  precautions  to  avoid  the  opening  of 
cracks  in  the  finish  along  the  batten  edges  which  result  from  shrink 
age  and  from  movement  of  the  panels  behind  them. 

Large  plywood  sheets  were  not  ordinarily  used  in  stressed  skin 
panels,  but  more  usually  in  frame  panel  construction.  Such  sheets 
were  made  up  by  factory  joining  of  4'  X  8'  sheets  into  room-size 
sheets  by  scarf  or  lap  joining  and  gluing  under  a  hot  press,  yielding 
a  very  satisfactory  continuous  wall. 

This  brief  discussion  of  the  technical  problems  of  plywood  will 
illustrate  the  fact  that  the  use  of  the  material  for  efficient  home 
construction  has  depended  in  large  measure  upon  the  development 
of  sound  factory  processes.  In  the  opinion  of  many  a  prefabricator, 
it  is  definitely  a  prefabrication  material,  which  could  be  used  effec 
tively  in  the  field  only  through  craftsmanship  of  cabinetmaker 
quality. 

Several  of  the  companies  used  laminated  paper  Upson  board  as 
an  interior  wall  surface  material,  and  at  least  one  used  it  in  a  partially 
stressed  skin  design.  Most  frequently  this  material  was  used  in 
room-size  sheets,  with  the  openings  cut  out  of  it.  Designs  took  care 
to  conceal  cracks  or  unpainted  lines  which  might  appear  as  the 
result  of  movement  of  the  board  over  the  course  of  time.  Other 
materials  were  also  employed,  such  as  Homasote,  a  wood-pulp  board 
available  in  room-size  sheets,  used  in  one  case  in  partially  stressed 
skin  construction. 

Examples.  Green's  Ready-Built  Homes,  Ivon  R.  Ford,  Inc.,  and 
Winner  Manufacturing  Company,  Inc.,  all  produced  stressed  skin 
panel  houses.  Green's  Ready-Built  Homes  produced  a  panelized  "solar 
house"  (see  Figure  30),  of  which  much  of  the  design  was  the  work 
of  George  Fred  Keck  of  Chicago.  The  basic  panel  was  39"  wide, 
of  wall  height,  and  composed  of  %"  exterior  grade  and  %"  interior 
finish  plywood  glued  (by  high-frequency  induction  hot  press)  to  a 
frame  of  2"  X  3"  edge  members  supported  by  two  1"  X  3"  inter 
mediate  studs.  Panels  were  held  together  by  metal  connectors  on 
the  grooved  and  beveled  panel  edges,  the  connectors  being  held 
firmly  by  the  position  of  the  heads  of  screws  attached  to  the  inter 
secting  edge  of  a  partition  or  corner  panel  (and  also  to  battens, 
which  were  inserted  at  each  joint).  This  gave  the  system  a  feature 
of  demountability.  Between  the  plywood  surfaces  two  aluminum- 

231 


foil  reflective  layers  were  carefully  bonded  in  such  a  way  as  to 
create  three  separate  and  approximately  equal  insulating  air  spaces 
within  the  panel.  Exterior  surfaces  were  sealed,  primed,  and  fin 
ished  with  oil  paints,  and  interior  surfaces  were  shop  finished  with 
clear  stain  and  lacquer  or  paint,  as  required.  At  the  site  wall  panels 
were  positioned  in  an  extruded  aluminum  plate.  A  feature  of  this 
house,  and  one  which  was  beginning  to  appear  elsewhere  also,  was 
the  use  of  fixed  and  sealed  double  panes  of  glass  for  vision,  with 
separate  wood  panel  openings  top  and  bottom,  louvered  and  screened, 
for  ventilation.  This  design  permitted  the  use  of  larger  windows  with 
out  the  expense  of  the  complex  carpentry  often  encountered  in  mov 
able  sash  construction.  The  house  had  a  high  degree  of  factory 
finish,  and  the  finish  was  of  a  quality  which  would  be  expensive  to 
duplicate  in  the  field.  In  architectural  planning  the  house  was  also 
unconventional,  with  an  attempt  to  give  all  rooms  due  south  orien 
tation. 

I  von  R.  Ford,  Inc.,  and  its  nine  licensees  spread  over  the  United 
States  and  Canada  manufactured  stressed  skin  plywood  houses  (see 
Figure  35)  made  up  from  room-size  panels  of  %"  exterior  sheathing 
and  %"  interior  finish  plywood  glued  and  nailed  to  2"  X  3"  studding 
16"  o.c.  Doors  and  double-hung  windows  were  factory  installed. 
Joints,  of  male  and  female  type,  were  glued  as  well  as  nailed,  and 
siding  or  shingling  was  applied  over  the  plywood  sheathing,  in  the 
field.  The  bottom  plate  of  the  wall  panel  was  rabbeted  into  the  sill 
for  alignment  and  fastened  in  place  by  toe-nailing  into  the  sill  with 
spikes.  The  design  was  relatively  conventional  and  simple,  and  yet 
would  be  difficult  to  produce  in  economical  quantity  without  a  well- 
equipped  woodworking  shop. 

The  Winner  Manufacturing  Company  at  the  time  of  our  survey 
produced  the  Shelter  Industries  House,  designed  by  Donald  Desky. 
Room -size  panels  were  made  up  of  %"  striated  exterior  plywood 
and  %6"  striated  interior  plywood  bonded  to  IKe"  X  3%"  studs 
16"  o.c.  Joints  required  to  make  up  plywood  sheets  of  the  required 
size  were  factory  caulked.  Double  aluminum-foil  sheets  and  one 
vapor  barrier  were  suspended  in  the  wall  to  give  a  total  of  four 
interior  air  spaces.  Field  joints  were  of  the  male  and  female  type, 
nailed  and  caulked.  Doors  and  double-hung  windows  were  factory 
installed,  and  the  striated  plywood  finish  was  field  finished  with 
lacquer  or  paint  as  desired.  This  house  was  of  unconventional  archi 
tectural  as  well  as  structural  design. 

Metal  skin  panels.  This  type  of  construction  was  used  by  the 
Butler  Manufacturing  Company  which  made  a  house  (see  Figure 

232 


36)  of  2'  wide  aluminum  pans  of  wall  height  which  acted  in  the 
manner  of  vertical  channels,  flange  to  flange.  The  web  of  the  chan 
nel  served  as  the  exterior  surface  of  the  house,  and  in  structural  action 
constituted  a  stressed  skin  0.051"  thick.  The  4"  flanges  gripped  wood 
filler  strips  which  cut  down  the  thermal  conductivity  from  outside 
to  inside.  In  part,  also,  these  filler  strips  served  as  a  frame,  and  they 
provided  a  wood  surface  for  the  nailing  of  optional  interior  finish  ma 
terials.  Two  braces  per  panel  stiffened  the  flanges,  and  the  panels 
were  clipped  together  at  the  site  with  an  H-shaped  key,  driven  home 
by  a  hammer.  Blanket  insulation  was  added  to  the  reflective  insula 
tion  provided  by  the  aluminum  surfaces  themselves,  and  panels  were 
ventilated  to  the  outside  to  minimize  condensation  and  obviate  the 
necessity  of  a  vapor  barrier.  Window  sash  and  frames  were  of  ex 
truded  aluminum  sections,  and  doors  and  door  frames  were  of  wood. 
Shorter  lengths  of  panel  were  used  under  and  over  openings  and  to 
make  up  gable  ends.  Aluminum  channels  positioned  the  panels  top 
and  bottom  and  were  bolted  into  the  floor  and  ceiling;  wood  molding 
and  base  were  used  on  the  interior.  Exterior  finish  was  paint  applied 
as  desired  in  the  field  over  shop-applied  zinc  chromate  primer. 

Plastic-impregnated  paper-core  materials  (see  Figure  20).  One  of 
the  most  interesting  technical  developments  in  the  postwar  period, 
this  construction  was  originally  a  development  of  the  aircraft  industry. 
Used  because  of  their  high  strength/weight  ratio,  such  materials  have 
been  the  subject  of  a  great  deal  of  interest  and  investigation  on  the 
part  of  the  prefabricators.  Usually  classified  as  sandwich  construc 
tion,  they  are  generally  most  like  the  stressed  skin  construction  of 
those  classifications  which  are  used  here.  The  two  forms  most  com 
monly  seen  at  the  time  of  our  survey  were  the  honeycomb  paper  core 
and  the  corrugated  paper  core.36  Development  work  on  the  former 
was  carried  on  primarily  by  Lincoln  Houses  Corporation,  Chrysler, 
Douglas  Aircraft,  and  Consolidated  Vultee;  while  the  latter  has  been 
developed  primarily  by  the  U.  S.  Forest  Products  Laboratory. 

At  the  time  of  the  survey,  Utley-Lincoln  planned  to  make  a  house 
with  panels  of  the  Lincoln  core  and  aluminum  skins  bonded  by  the 
Chrysler  method.  Southern  California  Homes  was  starting  produc 
tion  on  a  house  of  similar  basic  material,  and  it  is  an  indication  of  the 
structural  advantages  of  this  development  that,  for  southern  California 
climatic  conditions,  a  wall  section  only  2"  thick  required  no  further  in 
sulation. 

86  Described  in  more  detail  in  Chapter  9. 

233 


Typical  structural  panel 


Honeycomb  paper  core 


STEP  1. 
Glue  applied 
at  alternate 
lines  on  paper 


1.  Cross-corrugated 
parallel  to  faces 

2.  Cross-corrugated 
perpendicular  to 
faces 

Cross-corrugated  paper  core 


Asbestos 
cement 

3-ply 
Celotex 

Asbestos 
cement 


STEP  2. 
Paper  pressed 
together  and 
allowed  to  cure 


STEPS. 

Then  pulled  apart 
to  form  irregular 
pattern  of  cells 


Cemesto  board 
(non-structural  paneD 


Figure  20.     Sandwich  Panel  Materials 


The  Southern  California  Homes  system  included  a  semihoneycomb 
paper  core,  impregnated  with  phenolic  resin,  and  faced  with  alumi 
num  skins  (3S,  0.020"  thick,  %  hard)  in  room-size  panels.  Panel 
edges  and  openings  were  formed  by  channels  of  aluminum  0.064" 
thick,  the  flanges  of  which  were  bonded  between  skin  and  core  ma 
terials.  The  bottom  edge  of  the  panel  was  bonded  to  a  2"  box  sec 
tion  of  aluminum  which  served  as  a  wiring  conduit  and  also  pro 
vided  access  every  4'  for  bolting  the  panels  to  the  foundation  slab. 
On  the  inside  this  was  covered  by  a  simple  baseboard.  Aluminum 
rolled  strip  door  and  window  stops  were  screwed  to  the  channels, 
and  served  to  locate  steel  casement  sash  and  paper-core  wood-veneer 
flush  doors.  On  the  outside  the  bottom  edge  of  the  panel  had  a 
lip  to  cover  the  exterior  joint  at  the  edge  of  the  foundation.  From  the 
top  edge  of  wall  panels,  bolts  passed  through  to  roof  panels  and 
held  them  in  place.  Paint  over  zinc  chromate  primer  was  the  finish. 
This  wall,  complete,  averaged  only  1  Ib.  per  sq.  ft.  Architecturally, 
the  house  was  of  unconventional  design  and  reflected  an  appreciation 
of  the  possibilities  of  the  new  material.  It  would  require  a  few 
changes,  however,  particularly  to  avoid  through-metal  in  the  walls, 
for  use  in  northern  climates. 

Steel  skins,  particularly  stainless  steel,  could  of  course  be  used  as 
well  as  aluminum  in  paper-cored  walls,  but  as  yet  no  prefabricator 
had  tried  them.  There  was  during  the  time  of  the  survey,  however, 
at  least  one  house  making  use  of  plywood-faced  paper-core  walls. 
This  was  the  Acorn  House,  designed  by  Carl  Koch  and  John  Bemis. 
Here  the  design  called  for  a  core,  not  of  the  honeycomb  type,  but 
made  up  of  corrugated  paper  with  the  direction  of  the  corrugations 
alternated  for  good  performance  structurally  and  as  insulation,  ac 
cording  to  the  recommendations  of  the  U.  S.  Forest  Products  Labora 
tory.  The  core  was  then  bonded  in  a  press  to  surfacing  sheets  of  %" 
interior  grade  plywood  and  %"  striated  exterior  plywood.  Ad 
vantage  was  taken  of  the  lightness  of  the  material  to  design  a  house 
of  800  sq.  ft.  which  could  be  put  together  in  the  factory  around  a 
completely  equipped  kitchen,  bathroom,  and  utility  core,  folded  into 
a  compact  9'  X  24'  unit,  shipped  to  the  site  on  an  ordinary  trailer,  and 
there  set  on  posts  and  unfolded  in  a  very  simple  operation  to  produce 
the  finished  house.  Folding  was  made  possible  by  simple  hinged 
joints  sealed  with  neoprene  gaskets.  This  house,  light  as  it  was,  was 
designed  for  use  in  northern  climates. 

The  development  of  these  new  lightweight  materials  has  made  it 
possible  to  assemble  larger  and  larger  sections,  thus  avoiding  the  field 
joint  and  site  labor  problems.  This  tendency  in  turn  has  brought 


with  it  trends  towards  a  greater  degree  of  standardization  in  the  final 
house,  in  order  to  make  possible  simple  and  repetitive  factory  oper 
ations,  and  towards  a  highly  integrated  design  for  the  whole  house 
which  assures  full  benefit  of  the  thermal,  structural,  and  acoustical 
properties  of  the  new  materials  and  careful  attention  to  technical  pos 
sibilities  and  difficulties. 


Chart   G 

Stressed  Skin  Panel  Wall 
41  Companies 


Frame  members 
or  structural  core 


Panel  size 


Joint 


Insulation 


37 

wood 

2 

aluminum 

1 

steel 

1 

plastic-impregnated  paper 

16 

2"  X3" 

10 

1"  X4" 

4 

2"X2" 

27 

16"  o.c. 

3 

VA"  o.c. 

2 

12"  o.c. 

22 

glued  and  nailed 

9 

nailed 

5 

glued 

16 

48" 

16 

room  size 

3 

40" 

12 

m  and  f 

6 

spline 

5 

butt 

14 

batts 

7 

blanket 

7 

metal  foil 

236 


Vapor  barrier 


Exterior  structural  cladding 


Exterior  finish 


Interior  surface 


10 

insulation  backing 

5 

spray  or  brush  coat 

4 

metal  foil 

32 

plywood 

3 

wood 

3 

fiberboard 

2 

aluminum 

1 

steel 

16 

H* 

9 

M" 

3 

3^" 

25 

glued  and  nailed 

4 

electronic  glue 

3 

hot  press  glue 

2 

nailed 

39 

shop 

2 

field 

20 

plywood  cladding  surface 

6 

wood  siding 

4 

metal  cladding  surface 

26 

shop 

15 

field 

32 

plywood 

4 

gypsum  board 

3 

aluminum 

27 

glued  and  nailed 

4 

electronic  glue 

3 

hot  press  glue 

2 

nailed 

39 

shop 

2 

field 

Chart  G  gives  a  summary  of  the  structural  details  used  by  the  41 
companies  which  were,  at  the  time  of  the  survey,  making  use  in 
their  walls  of  stressed  skin  panels  in  some  one  of  the  many  forms 
which  have  been  considered. 


237 


5.  Solid  Panels 

Precast  concrete.  The  solid  panel  wall,  as  the  term  has  been  used 
here,  is  a  wall  in  which  the  structural  loading  is  spread  throughout 
a  more  or  less  homogeneous  panel  system.  The  most  common  design 
falling  within  this  classification  is  the  "precast  concrete"  wall,  of  which 
there  were  12  types  under  development  at  the  time  of  the  survey. 
At  the  time,  very  few  were  in  production,  and  none  on  a  large  scale, 
although  wide  interest  was  evinced  in  their  possibilities. 

Some  of  the  disadvantages  of  concrete  for  this  purpose  have  al 
ready  been  mentioned  on  p.  183.  Of  these,  perhaps  the  greatest  is 
the  combination  of  weight  and  bulk  with  frangibility  at  the  edges, 
although  the  designer  must  also  deal  with  poor  thermal  insulation  and 
with  the  problem  of  obtaining  an  adequate  degree  of  accuracy  for 
any  complex  concrete  shape  at  the  same  time  as  production  and  erec 
tion  economy.  Lightweight  aggregates  and  foamed  concretes  offer 
a  potential  saving  in  weight  and  an  improvement  in  thermal  insula 
tion,  but  relatively  few  prefabricators  were  making  use  of  them.  In 
deed,  most  concrete  systems  were  designed  for  relatively  simple  and 
unfinished  houses  in  relatively  warm  climates. 

The  hollow  slab  is,  of  course,  a  partial  answer  to  the  problems  of 
heavy  weight  and  poor  thermal  insulation,  but  it  is  also  much  more 
difficult  to  precast  than  a  solid  slab.  For  low  cost,  the  Portland  Ce 
ment  Association  suggested  precast  ribbed  slabs,  and  a  few  of  the 
prefabricators  used  them.  In  most  precast  concrete  systems,  care  was 
required  to  provide  thermal  insulation  and  to  avoid  condensation,  par 
ticularly  along  the  joints  where  there  was  likely  to  be  through-con 
crete.  At  the  joints,  also,  provision  had  to  be  made  for  expansion  and 
contraction  in  the  heavy  concrete  masses,  and  for  the  problems  of 
displacement  and  poor  alignment  resulting  from  inaccuracies  or 
changes  in  dimension  or  shape  along  the  slab  edges.  An  elastic 
joining  material  of  relatively  great  thickness  usually  was  employed 
for  these  reasons.  It  was  also  necessary,  in  most  cases,  because  of 
the  weight  and  bulk  of  the  panels,  to  use  additional  reinforcing  ma 
terial  to  protect  them  during  the  various  handling  operations  from 
casting  to  final  placing. 

Nevertheless,  precast  concrete  slabs  offered  certain  definite  ad 
vantages,  such  as  overall  design  simplicity  and  resistance  to  com 
bustion,  corrosion,  and  insects.  Development  of  simple  casting  pro 
cesses,  of  concrete  aggregates  permitting  easier  handling  and  simpler 

238 


design,  and  of  more  effective  joint  details  may  well  bring  further  con 
centration  on  concrete  in  the  next  few  years.37 

An  example  of  a  precast  concrete  house  was  that  being  developed 
by  Merriam  and  Twachtman  at  the  time  of  the  survey.  Wall  panels 
of  room  size,  as  large  as  8'  X  20',  were  to  be  precast  of  a  vibrated 
concrete  incorporating  an  expanded  slag  aggregate,  and  given  an 
exterior  surface  of  white  cement  which  was  supposed  to  require  no 
further  painting.  The  interior  surface  was  to  be  a  factory-applied 
plastic-base  paint  intended  to  serve  as  a  vapor  barrier  as  well.  Re 
inforcement  was  to  be  provided  by  wire  mesh  and  by  bars  tightened 
together  at  vertical  joints  to  tie  the  panels  together  and  hold  them 
in  proper  alignment.  Thick  strips  of  rubber  mastic  were  to  be  used 
at  all  joints,  allowing  for  imperfections  and  cutting  down  acoustic 
and  thermal  transmission;  door  bucks  composed  of  metal  sills  and 
jambs  were  cast  in  at  the  time  of  making  the  sections,  and  exterior 
wall  joints  were  to  be  protected  by  precast  pilasters. 

Other  precast  concrete  systems  were  quite  different  in  concept; 
for  example,  there  was  the  "Pfeifer  Unit"  produced  by  The  U.  S. 
Housing  Materials  Corporation.  This  was  small  (24"  X  24")  and 
served  the  function  more  of  a  building  block  than  of  a  true  wall 
panel.  The  most  familiar  example  of  the  building  block,  of  course,  is 
the  standard  concrete  block,  made  by  simple  machinery  and  available 
in  every  part  of  the  country.  Probably  neither  block  should  really 
be  classed  as  a  wall  panel. 

Composite  materials.  These  may  also  come  under  the  heading  of 
solid  panel  walls.  Cemesto  Houses  have  already  been  described 
under  frame  and  curtain  wall  assemblies,  but  the  use  of  a  similar 
board  as  a  load-bearing  panel  without  structural  framing  has  also 
aroused  some  interest,  although  it  would  require  a  tougher  skin  ma 
terial  and  careful  attention  to  the  joint  and  to  the  waterproofing  of 

37  The  work  of  Corwin  Willson  on  concretes  of  extremely  varying  characteristics 
was  reported  during  World  War  II.  Willson  tested  8,000  specimens  from  225 
materials,  which  included  organic  and  mineral  wastes  of  all  sorts  in  combination 
with  a  variety  of  fillers,  leaveners,  stabilizers,  waterproofers,  and  surface  coatings. 
He  found  potentially  useful  combinations  composed  of  common  wastes,  and  he 
was  able  to  secure  many  concretes  of  excellent  characteristics  for  building  con 
struction.  The  possibility  is  thus  presented  that  even  a  manufacturer  of  wood 
houses  may  make  extensive  use  of  his  waste  products  for  such  purposes  as  floor 
tiles,  wall  coverings,  piers,  slabs,  or  other  building  components  not  now  supplied 
in  his  house  package.  (Corwin  D.  Willson,  Properties  of  Assorted  Light  Weight 
Aggregate  Materials,  Office  of  Production  Research  and  Development  [Washing 
ton,  1944].  Also  available  from  Hobart  Publishing  Company,  Washington,  D.  C.) 

239 


Chart   H 


Solid  Panel  Wall 
12  Companies 


Frame  members 
or  structural  core 


Panel  size 

Joint 

Insulation 

Vapor  barrier 
Exterior  finish 


Interior  surface 


8 

concrete 

3 

steel 

1 

aluminum 

4 

6"  thickness 

2 

4"  thickness 

8 

poured 

3 

bolted 

1 

glued 

5 

room  size 

5 

48" 

6 

butt 

3 

tongue  and  groove 

4 

insulating  concrete 

2 

loose 

2 

spray  or  brush  coat 

1 

membrane 

1 

metal  foil 

6 

concrete  cladding 

3 

stucco  or  concrete 

6 

shop 

5 

field 

4 

cement  concrete 

2 

lath  and  plaster 

2 

gypsum  board 

7 

field 

5 

shop 

240 


the  panel  edge,  since  the  Celotex  filler  of  the  Cemesto  sandwich  loses 
as  much  as  80%  of  its  shear  strength  when  it  is  wet. 

Another  familiar  composite  which  may  eventually  be  used  in  this 
way  is  the  panel  of  wood  chips  bound  with  cementitious  materials. 
This  has  been  experimented  with  for  years,  and  such  a  panel  was  be 
ing  manufactured  for  industrial  insulation  by  the  Porete  Mfg.  Co. 
under  the  name  of  Porex.  Durisol,  originally  manufactured  in  Switzer 
land  and  widely  used  in  Europe,  is  a  similar  product  recently  made 
available  in  the  United  States.  Material  of  finer  wood  filler  and 
denser  composition  was  proposed  by  Newark  Industries  of  Ohio. 
These  compositions,  although  simple  to  prepare  in  small  amounts, 
present  a  very  difficult  mechanical  problem  of  mixing  and  handling 
for  continuous  strip  production,  and  many  of  them  can  be  thoroughly 
protected  against  moisture  only  through  the  exercise  of  great  care. 
They  were  not  in  use  for  prefabrication  purposes  at  the  time  of  our 
survey. 

Chart  H  presents  construction  details  of  the  12  companies  making 
use  of  one  or  another  of  these  solid  panel  walls  when  our  survey  was 
made. 


6.  Poured  at  Site 

While  this  construction  is  not  prefabrication,  as  we  ordinarily  think 
of  it,  some  mention  should  be  made  of  industrialized  systems  which, 
through  design  and  factory  fabrication  of  standardized  forming  and 
pouring  equipment,  amount  almost  to  prefabrication.  In  their  most 
extreme  development,  as  in  the  LeTourneau  house,  such  systems 
achieve  mechanization  and  standardization  comparable  to  those  of 
the  most  standardized  factory-built  houses. 

Hundreds,  and  perhaps  thousands,  of  systems  for  more  efficient 
site  pouring  of  concrete  walls  have  been  developed,  and  from  the  start 
it  has  been  apparent  that  ease  of  forming  is  of  paramount  importance. 
One  of  the  simplest  solutions  has  been  the  so-called  "tilt  up"  system, 
in  which  the  walls  are  cast  horizontally,  often  directly  on  the  floor 
slab  and  sometimes  in  tiers  one  on  top  of  the  other,  and  then  tilted 
up  into  vertical  position  by  various  ingenious  mechanical  contrivances. 
Use  has  been  made  of  wood  blocks  during  pouring  to  position  the  re 
inforcement  and  in  the  finished  wall  to  serve  as  nailing  blocks.  The 
potential  savings  over  vertical  casting  are  obvious.  Important  work 

241 


on  systems  of  this  sort  has  been  done  by  the  Portland  Cement  Asso 
ciation,  by  E.  J.  Rappoli,  F.  N.  Severud,  and  many  others. 

Hal  B.  Hayes,  producer  of  the  Hayes  Econocrete  House,  has  done 
a  great  deal  of  work  on  the  West  Coast  on  industrialized  collapsible 
forms  for  standardized  houses,  including  withdrawable  cores  for 
cavity  wall  construction.  However,  at  the  time  of  the  survey,  he 
was  more  interested  in  factory  precasting,  in  lightweight  waterproof 
concrete,  of  solid  wall  and  roof  slabs  2%"  thick  and  room  size,  with 
interlocking  corners  and  tongue  and  groove  joints. 

A  mixed-material  system,  studied  shortly  after  World  War  II  by 
A.  J.  Higgins,  made  use  of  chemically  foamed  insulating  concrete 
poured  at  the  site  into  permanent  "forms"  of  vitreous  enameled  steel 
which  served  as  surface  finish.  In  later  development  work,  Higgins 
abandoned  the  steel  surfaces  and  was  at  work  on  the  design  of  a 
house  using  only  site-poured  foamed  concrete  slabs. 

One  of  the  most  ingenious  systems,  in  terms  of  structural  efficiency, 
was  that  of  the  Neff  Airform  house.  This  was  not  prefabricated,  but 
made  at  the  site  of  gunite  (concrete)  sprayed  on  light  wire-mesh  re 
inforcement  which  had  been  laid  over  an  inflated  rubberized-fabric 
form.  The  resulting  structure  was  a  monolithic  monocoque  which 
could  be  hemispheric,  ellipsoidal,  or  semicylindrical  in  shape,  and  its 
efficient  use  of  materials  and  form  offered  many  potential  cost  sav 
ings.  Neff  produced  many  houses,  mostly  abroad,  but  there  were 
difficulties  in  carrying  out  his  system,  particularly  in  construction 
controls  and  in  making  window  and  door  openings  and  connections 
between  shapes  of  this  sort. 

The  LeTourneau  system  was  one  of  the  most  elaborate  house-cast 
ing  schemes  to  be  commercially  marketed  and  developed.38  It  in 
volved  the  use  of  a  special  forming  system  and  a  tremendous  ma 
chine,  the  Tournalayer,  which  could  pick  up  a  monolithically  cast 
house,  carry  it  to  the  site,  and  position  it  there  for  final  finishing 
(see  Figure  37). 

Another  site-poured  system  of  considerable  interest  was  that  of 
the  Ibec  Housing  Corporation  (see  Figure  38).  This  system,  de 
signed  to  apply  mechanical  processes  to  large-scale  concrete  construc 
tion  of  houses,  used  heavy  lifting  equipment  and  a  unitary  set  of 
wall  forms.  These  forms,  operated  by  levers  and  having  nylon- 
rubber  corners  to  speed  up  and  facilitate  stripping  and  resetting, 
were  used  on  a  24-hour  cycle.  Roof  slabs  were  poured  on  the  ground 
in  stacks,  pancake  fashion,  thus  requiring  only  edge  forms  and  per- 

88  This  system  is  fully  described  in  Chapter  9. 

242 


mitting  the  top  surface  of  each  slab  to  act  as  the  form  for  the  suc 
ceeding  slab.  After  the  form  for  the  walls  and  partitions  had  been 
lifted,  the  roof  slab  was  picked  up  and  set  in  place  by  a  vacuum 
lifting  mat.  Ibec  used  lightweight  aggregates  for  wall  and  roof  con 
struction  where  climatic  conditions  required  an  insulated  wall. 

It  should  be  noted  in  connection  with  these  various  systems  that,  in 
the  first  place,  all  have  their  most  likely  application  in  large  projects 
and,  in  the  second  place,  all  require  a  great  deal  of  finishing  work  at 
the  site,  often  by  handicraft  methods,  to  produce  a  house  having  the 
heating,  lighting,  and  mechanical  standards  common  to  this  country. 
In  warm  climates  particularly,  and  in  special  circumstances  of  urgent 
need  for  shelter  or  lack  of  other  housing  materials,  however,  these 
systems  have  already  proved  their  usefulness  and  offer  real  advan 
tages. 


7.  Windows  and  Doors 

One  of  the  important  considerations  in  the  prefabrication  of  walls 
has  little  to  do  with  the  structure  of  the  wall  section  itself;  this  is  the 
problem  of  windows  and  doors.  In  the  course  of  the  earlier  discussion, 
reference  has  occasionally  been  made  to  the  manner  in  which  win 
dows  and  doors  are  incorporated  into  the  walls.  Here  attention  is 
turned  to  the  methods  of  fabrication  of  these  elements. 

There  was  an  increasing  popularity  of  metal  windows,  in  wood  as 
well  as  metal  construction.  This  was  largely  because  of  the  superior 
dimensional  stability  of  the  metals,  which  helps  to  give  an  accurate 
and  lasting  fit.  However,  at  the  time  of  the  survey,  the  metal  win 
dows,  particularly  aluminum,  were  higher  in  initial  cost  than  the 
wood  windows  and  were  able  to  compete  principally  because  of  di 
mensional  stability  and  the  possibilities  of  lower  overall  cost  of  main 
tenance.  Undoubtedly  design  factors,  consumer  preference,  and  sta 
bility  of  supply  also  affected  the  choice.  Counteracting  these  ad 
vantages  were  the  problems  of  condensation  on  frames  and  sash, 
particularly  on  frames  in  the  wall  interior,  and  of  substantial  heat  loss 
through  the  metal  frames. 

Windows  have  long  been  prefabricated  by  specialty  companies,  as 
have  doors.  At  least  seven  of  the  prefabricators  had  developed  new 
window  designs,  however,  to  fit  their  particular  houses  and  manufac 
turing  operations;  although  they  rarely  produced  these  windows, 
they  usually  helped  to  pay  certain  costs  of  tooling  up,  such  as  the 

243 


cost  of  an  extrusion  die  for  an  aluminum  window.  Particularly  when 
the  wall  section  was  thin,  there  was  an  effort  to  cut  down  the  section 
of  the  windows  by  having  the  glass  slide  or  roll  without  any  enclos 
ing  sash  in  a  frame  carefully  designed  to  avoid  stress  concentrations 
on  the  glass.  This  usually  required  better-quality  glass  and  special 
attention  to  details,  however,  and  therefore  did  not  give  lower  final 
costs. 

Many  of  the  manufacturers,  particularly  those  using  frame  panels, 
tended  to  omit  weatherstripping  as  such  from  wood  window  construc 
tion,  although  some  used  metal  sash  guides  and  thereby  obtained 
some  weatherstripping  action.  The  metal  windows  were  usually  de 
signed  to  give  full  weatherstripping  action. 

In  the  case  of  doors,  there  was  a  definite  trend  towards  the  use 
of  lightweight  composite  doors  with  various  types  of  grids  for  cores, 
including  plastic-impregnated  paper.  Such  doors  were  especially 
common  among  the  makers  of  stressed  skin  plywood  panels,  for  they 
are  just  another  form  of  stressed  skin  plywood  or  sandwich  panel. 
At  least  one  of  the  prefabricators  in  this  group  regularly  used  the 
plywood  cut-outs  from  the  door  openings  in  his  wall  panels  to  make 
up  flush  doors  with  light  wooden  grid  cores  on  his  own  presses. 

One  development  in  this  connection  which  deserves  mention  was 
the  use  by  the  Lustron  Corporation  of  sliding  doors  in  most  interior 
locations  in  its  house.  Such  a  door,  designed  to  be  foolproof,  has 
obvious  advantages  in  the  saving  of  space,  and  public  reaction  to 
it  in  the  Lustron  houses  seems  to  have  been  favorable.  Made  up  as 
a  part  of  a  storagewall  system  of  interior  partitions,  this  may  be  the 
first  of  a  number  of  such  doors  to  appear  in  prefabricated  houses. 


E.  Ceilings 


1.  General 

The  ceiling  is  one  element  of  the  house  which  should  lend  itself 
readily  to  mass  production  because  of  its  large  unbroken  surface,  and 
which  should  be  prefinished  more  accurately  and  easily  in  the  shop 
than  in  the  field.  The  elimination  of  the  awkwardness  and  difficulty 
of  conventional  ceiling  construction  is  a  natural  goal  for  the  prefabri 
cators. 

244 


Furthermore,  the  ceiling  offers  to  ingenious  designers  an  oppor 
tunity  for  improvement  of  house  performance  with  respect  to  acous 
tics,  lighting,  and  heating.  Many  heating  engineers  and  physiologists 
have  argued  that  the  best  position  for  radiant  heating  is  in  the  ceil 
ing  surface,  despite  the  fact  that  other  considerations  have  led  to 
the  installation  of  most  radiant  heating  systems  in  the  floor  at  the 
present  time.  Modern  lighting  experts  are  turning  more  and  more 
attention  to  the  overall  luminous  ceiling;  acoustics  experts  have  long 
recognized  the  overwhelming  importance  of  the  ceiling  for  control 
of  sound.  While  in  some  respects  these  goals  may  be  opposed  to 
one  another,  they  offer  a  special  opportunity  and  a  challenge  to  the 
prefabricator. 

Structurally,  one  of  the  most  important  considerations  regarding  the 
ceiling  design  is  the  usual  code  regulation  limiting  maximum  deflec 
tion.  Few  prefabricators  use  plaster,  which  is  ordinarily  allowed  a 
maximum  deflection  of  %60  of  the  span,  while  many  use  dry  finishes 
which  are  allowed  maximum  deflections  up  to  %4o-89  Further,  the 
dry  finishes  reduce  dead  load  and  thus  permit  further  reduction  in 
the  framing  members  supporting  the  ceiling.  This  saving  is  well 
enough  understood  by  the  prefabricators,  and  they  have  fought  to 
have  such  construction  allowed  in  building  codes. 

Other  considerations,  of  course,  are  the  possibility  of  hanging  an 
extremely  light  ceiling  from  the  roofing  frame;  the  possibility  of  using 
as  the  ceiling  merely  the  underside  of  the  roof  construction  system, 
as  would  be  the  case  in  many  flat-roof  schemes;  and  the  possibility 
of  designing  the  roof  structure  to  be  supported  only  on  exterior  walls, 
leaving  the  ceiling  surface  unbroken  by  load-bearing  partitions. 

For  the  most  part,  it  will  be  seen  that  the  prefabricators  were  con 
servative  in  their  thinking  on  these  matters,  with  the  exception  of  the 
last.  The  bulk  of  the  designs  were  quite  conventional,  and,  as  a  re 
sult,  the  ceilings  were  often  the  least  prefabricated  components  in 
the  house. 


2.  Frame  Assembly 

At  the  time  of  the  survey,  44  companies  used  frame  assembly  sys 
tems  in  constructing  their  ceilings.  In  23  cases,  the  frames  which 
supported  the  ceiling  were  also  the  bottom  chords  of  the  roof  trusses; 

39  Prefabricated  Homes,  Commercial  Standard  CS 125-47,  p.  11. 

245 


Chart  I 


Frame  Assembly  Ceiling 
44  Companies 


Frame  members 


Surface  element 


Insulation 

Vapor  barrier 
246 


38 

wood 

5 

steel 

1 

aluminum 

21 

2*X6" 

8 

2"X4/r 

6 

2*X8* 

22 

16'  o.c. 

16 

24"  o.c. 

31 

nailed 

7 

screwed  or  bolted 

30 

field 

14 

shop    , 

39 

part  of  roof  construction?  no 

4 

yes 

23 

bottom  chord  of  truss?  yes 

18 

no 

15 

gypsum  board 

8 

plywood 

7 

lath  and  plaster 

6 

optional 

3 

fiberboard 

26 

nailed 

6 

troweled 

1 

screwed  or  bolted 

44 

field 

0 

shop 

5 

batts 

4 

loose 

2 

metal  foil 

4 

metal  foil 

3 

backing  of  insulation 

2 

asphalt  membrane 

this  left  for  field  application  only  the  surfacing  sheets  themselves,  and, 
because  in  most  cases  the  roof  trusses  were  preassembled,  field  appli 
cation  of  surface  components  was  probably  the  only  practical  answer. 
Room-size  or  house-size  ceiling  sheets  would  be  too  difficult  to 
handle  under  these  conditions,  and  among  the  most  satisfactory  ma 
terials  used  was  regular  gypsum  board. 

A  good  example  of  unconventional  ceiling  construction  of  the  frame 
assembly  type  was  that  of  the  Lustron  house,  in  which  vitreous 
enameled  steel  pans  were  screwed  to  the  bottom  of  the  doubled 
lower  chord  of  the  roof  truss.  Above  this,  and  fastened  to  the  upper 
member  of  this  doubled  lower  chord,  were  sheets  of  insulating  fiber- 
board,  topped  by  heavy  insulation.  The  area  between  the  two  sur 
faces  thus  became  a  plenum  chamber  which  was  used  to  heat  the 
house,  with  the  steel  ceiling  pans  serving  as  a  radiant  heating  panel. 
Heat  was  directed  throughout  the  plenum  by  a  sheet-metal  baffle  sys 
tem.  This  was  a  most  ingenious  way  of  taking  advantage  of  the 
characteristics  of  the  Lustron  construction  system  to  produce  up-to- 
date  heating;  from  the  point  of  view  of  the  prefabricator  the  troubles 
with  it  were  the  amount  of  site  labor  required  to  put  together  with 
sufficient  tightness  the  many  elements  of  this  plenum  chamber  in  the 
difficult  working  area  formed  by  the  chords  of  the  roof  trusses,  and 
the  risk  of  high  heat  loss  if  this  work  were  not  well  done. 

The  details  of  the  construction  of  frame  assemblies  used  by  the 
prefabricators  in  their  ceilings  are  summarized  in  Chart  I. 


3.  Frame  Panels 

The  use  of  frame  panels  in  ceilings  is  complicated  by  the  difficul 
ties  of  installing  vapor  barriers  and  insulation  and  of  getting  tight, 
good-looking  joints  which  are  proof  against  the  soiling  action  likely 
to  result  from  the  passage  of  air  from  the  attic  space.  Nevertheless 
54  of  the  companies  in  our  survey  used  such  ceiling  panels  in  one 
way  or  another,  and  the  summary  of  the  details  of  their  construction 
systems  is  presented  in  Chart  J. 

The  difficulties  with  joints  have  led  in  general  to  simplification  of 
ceiling  panel  joints  and  the  use,  in  many  cases,  of  simple  lap  joints  be 
tween  ceiling  surface  sheets  over  a  single  solid  framing  member. 
Where  a  regular  butt  joint  was  attempted,  there  was  almost  no  way 
to  allow  for  such  shrinkage  of  surface  sheets  as  might  have  taken 

247 


place  even  before  installation  of  panels— other  than  by  the  use  of 
battens,  and  these  were  generally  felt  to  be  unpopular  with  the  pur 
chasing  public.  Several  of  the  companies  had  attempted  to  panelize 
such  frangible  surface  materials  as  gypsum  board,  but  many  more 
of  them  used  plywood  for  this  purpose. 


Chart  J 


Frame   Panel  Ceiling 
54  Companies 


Frame  members 


Panel  size 


Joint 


248 


44 

wood 

7 

steel 

2 

concrete 

1 

aluminum 

18 

2"  X  4" 

18 

V  X  6" 

4 

2"X  8" 

33 

16"  o.c. 

9 

24"  o.c. 

1 

8M"  o.c. 

33 

nailed 

9 

glued  and  nailed 

6 

welded 

51 

shop 

3 

field 

46 

part  of  roof  construction?  no 

8 

yes 

39 

bottom  chord  of  truss?  no 

15 

yes 

11 

4'  X  12' 

5 

8'  X  12' 

2 

4'  X  house  width 

2 

4 

room  size 

25 

butt 

6 

m  and  f 

6 

interlock 

Surface  element 


Insulation 


23 

plywood 

14 

gypsum  board 

7 

fiber  board 

4 

lath  and  plaster 

26 

nailed 

15 

glued  and  nailed 

4 

troweled 

2 

electronic  glue 

36 

shop 

18 

field 

16 

batts 

4 

loose 

4 

metal  foil 

4 

fiberboard 

6 

insulation  backing 

4 

metal  foil 

3 

asphalt  membrane 

3 

spray  or  brush  coat 

Vapor  barrier 


Experimental  panels  of  this  sort  were  designed  by  the  Crawford 
Corporation,  using  %"  plywood  in  4'  X  12'  sheets  made  up  in  a 
panel  with  the  ceiling  joists,  and  having  an  impermeable  reflective 
insulation  installed  in  the  plant.  A  design  feature  was  the  use  of 
steel  straps  to  tie  these  panels  together  over  the  center  bearing  par- 
ition,  to  tie  the  panels  to  the  rafters,  and  to  position  the  structural 
elements  before  nailing. 


4.  Stressed  Skin  Panels 

Because  of  the  excess  strength  inherent  in  the  stressed  skin  panel, 
it  is  generally  used  for  the  ceiling  only  when  it  also  serves  as  the  roof 
or  as  a  second  floor  designed  to  carry  live  loads.  In  these  circum 
stances  it  offers  some  advantages  in  the  reduction  of  dead  loads,  and 
in  fact  it  may  be  more  appropriate  than  on  the  first  floor,  where  there 
is  rarely  any  advantage  in  a  smooth  undersurface. 

However,  it  is  difficult  to  avoid  irregular-appearing  joints  between 
such  panels  without  using  special  batten  or  jointing  strips,  unless  the 
complete  ceiling  for  each  room  area  is  made  up  as  a  single  panel. 

249 


Chart  K 


Stressed  Skin  Panel  Ceiling 
21  Companies 


Frame  members 
or  structural  core 


Panel  size 


Joint 


250 


16 

wood 

2 

aluminum 

2 

plastic-impregnated  paper 

1 

steel 

5 

2"  X  6" 

3 

2*X4* 

2 

2"X3" 

10 

16"  o.c. 

2 

12"  o.c. 

2 

8}i"  o.c. 

12 

glued  and  nailed 

2 

hot  press  glue 

2 

nailed 

2 

screwed  or  bolted 

2 

electronic  glue 

19 

shop 

2 

field 

11 

part  of  roof  construction?  yes 

10 

no 

17 

bottom  chord  of  truss?  no 

4 

yes 

4 

4'  X  12' 

2 

4'  X  house  width 

2 

40"  X  10'  or  6'8" 

2 

4'X4' 

2 

4'X8' 

2 

8'  X  house  width 

5 

butt 

5 

"v" 

3 

spline 

2 

m  and  f 

2 

interlock 

Surface  element 


14 

plywood 

4 

aluminum 

2 

gypsum  board 

1 

steel 

13 

glued  and  nailed 

2 

hot  press  glue 

2 

nailed 

2 

electronic  glue 

2 

screwed  or  bolted 

19 

shop 

2 

field 

5 

batts 

2 

metal  foil 

2 

reflective  paint 

2 

spray  or  brush  coat 

2 

insulation  backing 

2 

asphalt  membrane 

2 

metal  foil 

Insulation 


Vapor  barrier 


In  the  Wingfoot  home  there  is  a  single  stressed  skin  plywood  roof 
panel  which  also  serves  as  a  ceiling  for  the  entire  center  section  of 
8'  X  26'.  ( The  house  also  has  two  small  bedroom  extensions. )  This 
ceiling  is  made  of  %"  plywood,  sealed,  primed,  and  finish  coated  in 
the  plant  and  glued  and  stapled 40  to  the  underside  of  1"  X  6"  and 
2"  X  6"  ceiling-roof  joists.  The  interior  of  the  panels  contains  a 
vapor  barrier  and  2"  blanket  insulation,  and  the  exterior  surface  is 
%"  plywood. 

In  the  Southern  California  Homes  house,  ceiling-roof  panels  as 
large  as  8'  X  18'  are  made  up  of  3"  plastic-impregnated  paper  core 
to  which  are  bonded  sheets  of  0.020"  aluminum.  Exterior  joints  be 
tween  contiguous  panels  are  closed  by  an  aluminum  cover  strip 
which  fits  over  standing  edges  on  the  panels. 

A  summary  of  the  details  of  the  various  types  of  stressed  skin  ceiling 
panels  used  by  21  prefabricators  at  the  time  of  the  survey  is  given 
in  Chart  K. 

40  Some  authorities  have  questioned  whether  stapling  gives  enough  glue-line 
pressure  for  a  good  bond  in  stressed  skin  construction. 


5.  Solid  Panels 

Almost  every  solid  ceiling  panel  being  produced  at  the  time  of  the 
survey  was  a  concrete  slab  used  in  a  concrete  structure,  though  there 
were  designs  under  development  making  use  of  Cemesto-like  sand 
wiches  and  similar  materials.  The  concrete  panels  were  relatively 
massive  and  generally  required  specialized  equipment  to  lift  them 
into  place  and  a  very  strong  wall  structure  to  support  them,  so  that 
their  application  was  necessarily  somewhat  limited. 

In  this  category,  however,  should  probably  be  included  precast 
spanning  units  of  reinforced  concrete,41  even  though  they  ordinarily 
are  made  with  a  hollow  core.  Such  units  come  ordinarily  about 
If— 2'  in  width,  with  length  and  thickness  varying  according  to  the 
requirements  of  span  and  loading.  In  place,  the  units  are  grouted 
together  and  present  a  flat  concrete  surface,  the  underside  of  which 
often  serves  as  a  ceiling.  The  use  of  prestressed  concrete  systems 
in  housing  applications  was  also  under  study,  but  none  were  used  for 
specific  prefabrication  applications  at  the  time  of  our  survey. 

All  of  the  seven  companies  producing  solid  panel  ceilings  designed 
them  to  be  used  as  ceiling-roof  or  ceiling-second  floor  combinations. 
The  joints  usually  consisted  of  a  lapping  or  keying  system  with  a 
mastic  filler,  although  Vacuum  Concrete  utilized  a  vacuum  form  to 
cast  the  joints  at  the  site  and  give  them  high  early  strength.  This 
company  was  also  engaged  in  studying  the  use  of  prestressed  concrete 
slabs,  so  designed  that  tensioning  of  the  reinforcing  rods  in  the  slab 
after  setting  would  throw  the  concrete  into  continuous  compression 
and  thereby  stiffen  the  slab  and  increase  its  strength,  perhaps  as  much 
as  three  times,  without  increasing  the  amount  of  material  used. 


6.  Poured  at  Site 

The  rigid  structures  of  the  LeTourneau  house,  the  Ibec  house,  and 
the  Neff  Airform  house  were  the  only  ones  which  could  be  placed 
in  this  category  at  the  time  of  the  survey.  However,  work  was  being 
done  at  that  time  on  cast-at-site  ribbed  concrete  ceiling  slabs,  and  on  a 
number  of  other  systems  which  cannot  properly  be  called  prefabri 
cation.  Of  these,  among  the  most  interesting  were  those  which  used 
the  floor  slab  as  a  form  for  the  ceiling  slab.  In  one  of  these,  developed 

41  As  made  by  The  Flexicore  Co.,  Inc.,  Illinois- Wisconsin  Concrete  Pipe  Co., 
Cities  Fuel  and  Supply,  and  others. 

252 


simultaneously  by  Philip  N.  Youtz  and  Tom  Slick,  the  reinforcement 
pattern  of  the  ceiling-roof  slab  was  designed  to  permit  the  pouring  of 
this  slab  around  properly  located  metal  columns  which  contained 
jacking  devices.  After  the  slab  had  set,  the  ceiling-roof  could  be 
jacked  to  the  proper  height  and  fixed  in  position,  leaving  nothing 
but  curtain  walls  to  be  supplied  to  close  in  the  house. 

It  was  in  these  fields  of  concrete  design,  handling,  and  erection, 
rather  than  in  true  prefabrication  in  concrete,  that  some  of  the  most 
interesting  research  and  development  work  was  being  done  at  the 
time  of  the  survey. 


F.  Roofs 


1.  General 

In  most  cases  the  roof  is  one  of  the  most  difficult  of  the  house 
components  to  prefabricate  although,  as  a  relatively  simple  and  un 
broken  large  area,  it  should  lend  itself  to  mass-production  methods. 
The  main  difficulty,  of  course,  is  the  application  of  final  roof  surfac 
ing,  which  in  most  cases  must  be  done  in  the  field  to  ensure  weather- 
tightness.  Joints  on  the  roof  surface  are  difficult  to  make  secure,  and, 
in  fact,  of  all  the  elements  of  the  house  subjected  to  weathering,  the 
roofing  is  likely  to  be  the  least  durable.  The  development  of  a  good 
inexpensive  roofing  scheme  is  still  one  of  the  great  needs  in  the  field 
of  building  construction. 

With  regard  to  flat  versus  pitched  roofs,  many  of  the  more  experi 
enced  pref abricators  agreed  that  it  was  cheaper  ( estimates  were  given 
varying  from  $150  to  $500)  to  produce  a  flat-  than  a  pitched-roof 
structure,  partly  because  of  savings  in  surface  area  and  partly  because 
of  the  elimination  of  gable-end  walls.  Yet  many  of  these  prefabri- 
cators  felt  that  it  became  impossibly  expensive  to  assemble  a  satis 
factory  protective  surface  on  a  flat  roof,  and  that  pitched-roof  con 
struction  retained  several  other  advantages  in  the  prefabrication  of 
houses,  particularly  if  it  could  provide  bulk  storage  area  and  space 
for  future  expansion.  In  the  future,  the  improvement  of  metal  roof 
ing  skins  may  alter  this  balance.  General  Homes,  for  instance,  had 
designed  a  roof  of  factory-bonded  aluminum  skins  with  special  joints 
to  be  made  in  the  field,  which  eliminated  further  field  roofing  work. 

253 


(The  company  was  required  to  change  to  a  pitched  roof  by  FHA, 
nevertheless,  at  a  cost  estimated  by  its  chief  designer  at  $500  per 
house. ) 

A  design  idea  which  had  been  studied  by  several  of  the  prefabri- 
cators  (Production  Line,  Fuller,  Southern  California)  was  that  of 
sealing  the  entire  roof  panel,  butting  panels  together  at  the  site,  per 
mitting  some  water  to  run  down  between  them,  and  carrying  it  off 
below  in  troughs  on  top  of  the  structural  members  or  batten  strips 
which  bridge  the  joint.  It  was  thought  easier  to  maintain  the  in 
tegrity  of  such  joints  and  troughs  and  simpler  to  make  the  joints  in 
the  field  than  in  the  more  usual  designs,  and  the  mastics  or  caulking 
used  under  the  panels  would  be  shielded  from  the  worst  effects  of  the 
weather.  On  the  other  hand,  many  new  and  difficult  problems  of 
freezing  and  clogging  had  to  be  faced  before  the  idea  could  be  widely 
used. 


2.  Frame  Assembly 

This  type  of  roof  construction  was  almost  invariably  found  in  con 
nection  with  pitched  roofs  where  extensive  use  was  to  be  made  of  the 
attic  space  beneath,  and  where  the  desired  continuous  surface  of  roof 
ing  applied  over  framing  members  was  not  so  easily  panelized  in  the 
factory  as  were  other  components.  Furthermore,  shortages  of  the 
larger  pieces  of  dimension  lumber  and  planning  and  construction  ad 
vantages  had  led  to  an  increasing  interest  in  truss  construction  sys 
tems,  with  some  prefabricators  seeking  additional  benefits  through 
the  use  of  timber  connectors.  These  specialized  members  tended  to 
become  the  subject  of  quantity  production  themselves,  and  accord 
ingly  interest  was  turned  away  from  the  development  of  roof  panels 
as  such. 

The  possible  advantages  of  the  truss  over  the  normal  ceiling  joist 
and  rafter  construction,  in  addition  to  permitting  factory  fabrication 
instead  of  difficult  site  work,  lie  in  the  use  of  shorter  lengths  of  lumber, 
in  the  use  of  smaller  sections  of  lumber  if  the  truss  spacing  is  the  same 
as  that  of  rafters  or  wider  spacing  if  the  sections  are  the  same,  in  the 
resulting  clear  span  from  wall  to  wall  without  interior  bearing  parti 
tions,  and  in  the  design  freedom  resulting  from  this  clear  span. 
Most  truss  systems  break  up  the  attic  space,  and  so  they  tend  to  be 
employed  in  connection  with  designs  which  make  no  use  of  this  space. 

254 


Production  advantages  of  the  truss  lie  in  the  fact  that  it  can  be  jig- 
assembled  by  unskilled  labor,  that  it  undergoes  little  change  of  shape 
after  fabrication,  that  it  is  not  particularly  bulky  to  ship  or  handle, 
and  that  it  serves  automatically  to  line  up  exterior  walls  and  level 
ceiling  surface.42 

In  this  connection  it  is  interesting  to  note  that  several  steel  fabri 
cating  concerns  and  at  least  one  aluminum  fabricating  concern  were 
offering  lines  of  roof  trusses  to  the  general  housebuilding  market. 

Few  of  the  roofs  in  this  category  are  insulated  to  any  great  extent 
so  that,  in  order  to  prevent  condensation  from  occurring  in  the  attic 
space  and  to  avoid  overheating  that  space  in  hot  weather,  it  is  custo 
mary  to  ventilate  the  roof,  either  through  louvered  openings  in  the 
gable-end  walls  or  through  eave  vents,  or  both,  and  to  put  a  vapor 
barrier  or  insulation  layer,  or  both,  next  to  the  ceiling.  The  roof 
structure  thus  becomes  essentially  an  umbrella  over  the  rest  of  the 
house.  This  is  particularly  true  in  the  case  of  some  of  the  metal  roof 
systems,  in  which  a  much  more  serious  condensation  problem  must  be 
met  by  employing  large  quantities  of  moving  air,  and  to  which,  be 
cause  of  their  rib-like  framework  and  thin  protective  skins,  the  um 
brella  analogy  is  much  more  clearly  applicable. 

In  the  Lustron  house,  for  example,  steel  "hat  sections"  were  welded 
together  to  make  up  trusses  which,  spaced  4'  o.c.,  supported  vitreous 
enameled  steel  pans  shaped  to  give  the  general  appearance  of  tiles 
and  interlocked  in  much  the  same  way  at  the  joints.  Beneath  this 
umbrella  the  air  was  quite  free  to  move  about,  while  a  thick  blanket 
of  insulation  protected  the  heating  plenum  chamber  beneath. 

The  Steelcraft  Manufacturing  Company  offered  a  house  in  which 
the  steel  angle  trusses  were  spaced  8'  o.c.,  supporting  a  latticework 
of  steel  angle  rafters  2'  o.c.  and  hat-section  steel  purlins  10"  o.c.  Over 
this  framing  were  laid  aluminum  sheets,  to  the  underside  of  which 
was  cemented  43  Ib.  felt.  The  edges  of  these  sheets  turned  up  to 
form  vertical  standing  joints.  Louvered  openings  at  gable  ends  were 
used  for  ventilation. 

These  metal  roofs  were  the  exception,  of  course,  rather  than  the 
general  rule.  A  summary  of  the  details  used  by  the  52  companies 
using  frame  assembly  construction  in  their  roofs  is  given  in  Chart  L. 

42  For  a  discussion  of  the  use  of  roof  trusses,  see  HHFA  Technical  Bulletin, 
no.  8  (January  1949),  pp.  61-6. 


255 


Chart   L 


Frame  Assembly  Roof 
52  Companies 


Frame  members 


Structural  cladding 


Roofing  surface 


46 

wood 

7 

steel 

1 

aluminum 

34 

1"  X  6" 

7 

2"X4" 

26 

16"  o.c. 

15 

24"  o.c. 

42 

nailed 

7 

screwed  or  bolted 

2 

welded 

37 

field 

14 

shop 

46 

part  of  ceiling  construction?  no 

4 

yes 

23 

top  chord  of  truss?  yes 

25 

no 

24 

wood 

21 

plywood 

45 

nailed 

3 

screwed  or  bolted 

48 

field 

3 

shop 

14 

asphalt  shingles 

11 

optional 

8 

wood  shingles 

51 

field 

1 

shop 

256 


27      Southern  California  Homes  house 


showing 

living  room  interior 

showing  garden  wall  and 
storage  unit 


m 


22     Reliance  ho 


23     Section  of  A1ROH  house 
being  unloaded  from  trailer 


24     Pierce  Foundation— Cemesto  House 


25     Production  Line  Structures-prototype  house  under  construction 


26     Wingfoot  house,  showing  bedroom  sections  extended 


27     Acorn  house 


folded  unit  in  place, 
showing  supporting 
beams  in  place 


unfolding  floor 
and  end  wall 


unfolding  side  walls 
unfolding  roof 
completed  house 


28    The  Fuller  house  under  construction 
floor  structure  laid 

mast  erected  and  roof  structure  assembled 
roof  raised  and  walls  suspended 
ventilator  hoisted  on  to  finished  structure 


29     Kaiser  Community  Homes  house 


30     Green's  "solar  house' 


3.  Frame  Panels 

The  same  general  considerations  apply  to  a  frame  panel  system  as 
do  to  a  frame  assembly  system,  and  again  it  will  be  noted  that  the 
large  majority  of  prefabricators  in  this  classification  used  wood  and 
made  it  up  in  a  relatively  conventional  manner,  applying  the  roofing 
as  a  continuous  surface  at  the  site.  In  fact,  since  trusses  were  usually 
fabricated  as  units  and  rarely  combined  in  panels,  frame  panel  roof 
construction  was  on  the  whole  even  more  conventional  than  frame 
assembly. 

There  were  a  few  prefabricators,  however,  who  sent  out  panels 
which  were  entire  roofs,  or  large  sections  of  roofs.  These  were, 
naturally  enough,  in  the  group  which  used  mass-production  methods 
in  erection  as  well  as  in  fabrication.  One  such  was  the  Byrne  Organi 
zation,  which  at  Harundale  made  up  in  the  project  shop  an  entire 
pitched-roof  frame  of  steel  trusses  to  which  wood  sheathing  and  shing 
ling  were  nailed  and  gable-end  walls  welded,  also  in  the  shop.  The 
complete  roof  was  then  transported  to  the  site,  placed  atop  the  house 
with  a  special  lifting  machine,  and  welded  to  the  steel  wall  members. 

The  roof  of  the  Hamill  and  Jones  house  was  an  unusual  example 
of  frame  panel  construction  in  wood.  In  the  first  place,  this  was  one 
of  the  few  hip-roof  schemes.  Also,  the  roof  was  made  up  of  4'  panels 
extending  from  eave  to  ridge  or  hip,  with  2"  X  4"  rafters  24"  o.c. 
except  at  panel  edges,  where  a  V  X  4"  was  used;  V  braces  supported 
these  rafters  at  center  span.  The  most  interesting  feature  was  the 
fact  that  shingling  was  shop  applied  in  such  a  way  as  to  be  woven 
together  over  the  butt  panel  joints  at  the  site.  This  was  made  pos 
sible  by  a  master  jig  on  which  the  whole  roof  assembly  was  put 
together  in  the  shop,  and  then  separated  into  panels  for  transporta 
tion  to  the  site. 

A  summary  of  the  construction  details  of  the  frame  panel  roofs 
used  by  54  prefabricators  is  contained  in  Chart  M. 


4.  Stressed  Skin  Panels 

This  type  of  construction  was  seldom  used  for  a  roof  unless  the 
underside  of  the  panel  was  also  to  be  used  as  a  ceiling,  for  otherwise 
the  extra  strength  and  finish  were  not  warranted.  Thus  it  was  prin 
cipally  a  flat-roof  construction.  Since  it  is  also  the  lightest  sort  of 
roof  construction  in  most  cases,  special  attention  often  had  to  be 

257 


Chart  M 


Frame  Panel  Roof 
54  Companies 


Frame  members 


Panel  size 


Joint 


Structural  cladding 


44 

wood 

8 

steel 

23 

2"X6" 

10 

2"  X4" 

5 

2"X3" 

2 

2"  X  8" 

34 

16"  o.c. 

9 

24"  o.c. 

35 

nailed 

8 

glued  and  nailed 

5 

screwed  or  bolted 

4 

welded 

51 

shop 

3 

field 

46 

part  of  ceiling  construction?  no 

8 

yes 

39 

top  chord  of  truss  ?  no 

15 

yes 

22 

eave  to  ridge  X  4' 

3 

eave  to  ridge  X  8' 

3 

width  of  roof  X  4' 

31 

butt 

5 

m  and  f 

4 

interlock 

24 

plywood 

16 

wood 

34 

nailed 

11 

glued  and  nailed 

36 

shop 

18 

field 

258 


19 

asphalt  shingles 

12 

wood  shingles 

9 

optional 

4 

painted  metal 

4 

built-up  roof 

46 

field 

8 

shop 

Roofing  surface 


paid  to  negative  wind-loadings  which  would  tend  to  lift  the  panels 
free  of  the  house. 

The  construction  of  several  of  these  panels  was  described  under 
stressed  skin  panel  ceilings,  p.  251.  Further  details  regarding  some  of 
these  may  be  given  here.  For  the  Southern  California  Homes  house, 
the  addition  of  an  asphalt-base  paint  over  the  zinc  chromate  primer 
on  the  aluminum  surface  was  considered  advisable,  and  at  the  joints 
there  was  a  metal  cap  over  the  standing  panel  edges  and  a  cover 
strip  on  the  underside  of  the  panel  joint  to  carry  any  seeping  water 
down  to  gutters  and  downspouts.  The  Wingfoot  roof  panel  was 
finished  on  the  exterior  with  roll  roofing  mopped  onto  the  complete 
roof  panel  surface  in  the  factory. 

In  the  proposed  Fuller  house,  it  was  planned  to  rivet  sheets  of 
aluminum  to  W-shaped  metal  ribs  which  arched  in  umbrella  fashion 
from  a  central  supporting  mast.  Moisture  was  relatively  free  to 
enter  the  grooves  of  the  W-shaped  ribs,  and  in  these  grooves  it  was 
to  be  carried  down  to  a  gutter  located  inside  the  bottom  edge  of  the 
roof.  There  has  not  been  a  great  deal  of  experience  with  such  inside 
drains  to  test  their  effectiveness  in  the  face  of  freezing  and  clogging 
conditions,  since  for  the  most  part  they  have  been  used  in  houses 
designed  for  warm  and  relatively  dry  climates. 

Most  of  the  companies  used  stressed  skin  panels  in  what  might  be 
called  conventional  manner,  as  will  be  seen  from  Chart  N,  which  sum 
marizes  the  construction  details  of  the  14  companies  constructing  their 
roofs  in  this  way. 


5.  Solid  Panels 

In  the  case  of  each  of  the  six  companies  producing  them,  the 
solid  panel  roof  systems  were  so  designed  that  the  underside  could 
also  serve  as  the  ceiling  of  the  space  below.  The  weather  surface 

259 


Chart   N 


Stressed  Skin  Panel  Roof 
14  Companies 


Frame  members 
or  structural  core 


Joint 


Structural  cladding 


10 

wood 

2 

plastic-impregnated  paper 

1 

steel 

1 

aluminum 

6 

V  X  6" 

2 

r  x4* 

2 

t*X4* 

7 

16*  o.c. 

2 

48"  o.c. 

1 

12"  o.c. 

8 

glued  and  nailed 

3 

glued 

2 

screwed  or  bolted 

12 

shop 

2 

field 

10 

part  of  ceiling  construction?  yes 

4 

no 

12 

top  chord  of  truss?  no 

2 

yes 

5 

butt 

3 

special 

2 

m  and  f 

2 

interlock 

2 

lap 

10 

plywood 

3 

aluminum 

1 

steel 

9 

glued  and  nailed 

3 

hot  press  glue 

12 

shop 

2 

field 

260 


Roofing  surface 


6 

built-up  roll 

2 

optional 

2 

painted  metal 

1 

unpainted  metal 

12 

field 

2 

shop 

6 

batts 

2 

metal  foil 

1 

felt 

Insulation 


normally  was  the  conventional  built-up  roofing  of  felt,  asphalt,  and 
mineral  granules.  A  great  deal  of  research  was  being  devoted  to  the 
use  of  homogeneous  materials  such  as  improved  concretes,  wood  waste 
composites,  and  rigid  insulating  compositions  as  self-supporting  roof 
materials  which  might  supply  finish  as  well  as  surface  and  which 
offer  at  the  same  time  the  possibility  of  mass  production  of  large, 
simple  elements.  This  work  had  not  led  to  commercial  developments 
at  the  time  of  the  survey. 


6.  Poured  at  Site 

The  few  systems  which  fall  under  this  heading  have  been  de 
scribed  already  under  the  same  heading  in  the  section  on  ceilings, 
since  in  every  case  poured  monolithic  ceilings  also  served  as  roofs. 
As  a  weather  surface,  the  LeTourneau  house  had  a  coat  of  water 
proofing  applied  to  the  standing  shell.  In  the  Neff  Airform  house,  a 
layer  of  waterproofing  compound  was  sprayed  on  the  surface  just  be 
neath  the  final  coat  of  gunite. 


7.  Gable-End  Walls 

In  the  many  cases  in  which  the  attic  was  not  designed  for  living 
space,  the  gable-end  walls  were  single-surface,  uninsulated  sections. 
In  all  but  a  very  few  such  cases,  therefore,  they  were  separate  panels, 
rather  than  a  vertical  continuation  of  the  end  wall  construction,  which 
was  likely  to  be  quite  different.  It  was  also  considered  preferable  to 
make  a  separate  gable-end  wall  panel  so  that  the  lower  wall  panels 

261 


could  be  more  thoroughly  standardized.  Of  the  companies  making 
such  panels  32  had  wood  louvers  installed  in  them  for  ventilation, 
while  another  15  used  metal  louvers. 


IV.  Miscellaneous  Design  Features 


A.  Plumbing 


Many  prefabricators  took  one  step  beyond  most  of  the  conventional 
builders  in  working  out  a  standardized  plumbing  layout  as  an  integral 
part  of  the  house  design.  Seventy-eight  companies  were  known  to 
provide  a  standard  and  specific  plumbing  plan,  detailing  piping  and 
connections,  in  their  blueprints.  In  theory,  prefabricators  are  in  a 
good  position  to  use  the  most  advanced  and  economical  methods 
commensurate  with  good  engineering  practice;  actually,  preference, 
prejudice,  codes,  the  plumbing  industry  itself,  and  the  unions  have 
made  it  difficult  to  use  such  rational  designs,  or  even  to  use  standard 
ized  designs  of  relatively  conventional  nature  over  very  wide  market 
ing  areas. 

This  problem  was  recognized  by  all  concerned,  and  efforts  were 
being  made  to  solve  it.  Particular  mention  should  be  made  here  of 
tests  made  by  the  National  Bureau  of  Standards,  with  the  cooperation 
of  the  Housing  and  Home  Finance  Agency,  of  private  groups,  and  of 
the  plumbers  themselves,  to  determine  by  scientific  methods  the  an 
swers  to  many  long-standing  plumbing  controversies,  and  in  the  end 
to  stimulate  code  simplifications  which  will  have  the  support  of  all 
groups.43 

As  for  the  degree  to  which  prefabricators  are  able  to  make  use  of 
rational  plumbing  designs,  it  can  be  pointed  out  that  49  companies 
had  arranged  to  place  their  kitchen  and  bathroom  fixtures  back  to 
back  for  simplified  connections  from  a  single  "plumbing  wall."  The 
majority,  however,  seemed  to  feel  that  many  a  subcontractor  refuses 
to  pass  along  the  savings  made  possible  in  this  way,  and  since  to  some 

43  The  Uniform  Plumbing  Code  for  Housing,"  HHFA  Technical  Paper,  no.  6 
( February  1948 ) .  Preliminary  edition  out  of  print,  revised  edition  in  preparation. 

262 


degree  the  requirement  that  these  fixtures  be  back  to  back  is  a  limi 
tation  of  freedom  in  planning  of  kitchens  and  bathrooms,  it  could  be 
disregarded. 

Where  the  prefabricator  actually  put  together  part  of  his  plumb 
ing  in  the  factory,  however,  he  did  not  disregard  the  possibility  of 
such  savings  in  pipe  and  fittings.  Of  the  27  who  assembled  their 
own  piping  panels  in  the  plant  at  the  time  of  our  survey,  nearly  all 
used  back-to-back  layouts.  Six  other  companies,  which  themselves 
made  no  attempt  to  assemble  the  piping  but  only  sent  it  along  with 
the  package  already  precut  and  threaded  for  local  assembly,  also 
sought  back-to-back  economies. 

Many  of  the  prefabricators  were  convinced  that  copper-tubing 
supply  lines  and  soldered  connections  were  more  economical  than 
the  conventional  iron,  even  though  materials  cost  a  bit  more,  be 
cause  the  labor  costs  were  less.  Some  would  even  have  liked  to  offer 
welded  steel  plumbing  assemblies  featuring  pipe  bent  on  tube  turn 
ers,  but  feared  conflict  with  existing  code  and  inspection  provisions. 
An  interesting  plumbing  development  was  the  plan  of  Southern  Cali 
fornia  Homes  to  prefabricate  its  system  completely  in  three  sections, 
a  copper-tubing  supply  system,  an  underground  waste  system,  and  a 
vent  system. 

The  prefabrication  of  plumbing  is  one  rational  step  which  most 
prefabricators  were  anxious  to  take,  for  plumbing  is  a  good  example 
of  an  expensive  item  which  can  be  completely  standardized  and 
which  permits  mass-production  and  mass-procurement  economies  at 
the  same  time  as  simpler  handling  and  lower  costs  of  erection.  A 
typical  prefabricator  made  the  point  clear  with  a  question:  "A  com 
plete  set  of  plumbing  materials  and  fixtures  probably  costs  $100,  but 
the  installed  cost  of  a  bathroom  is  at  least  $500  or  $600.  Why?" 

From  the  prefabrication  of  plumbing,  the  next  step  is  the  prefabri 
cation  or  at  least  preassembly  of  the  fixtures,  too,  and  six  companies 
attached  fixtures  to  the  piping  in  the  plant.  There  is  nothing  new 
about  this,  or  indeed  about  the  fabrication  of  a  specially  designed 
combination  of  fixtures  in  the  form  of  a  single  unit.  Buckminster 
Fuller's  bathroom  design  (see  Figure  31)  was  tried  out  and  seriously 
considered  for  mass  production  a  dozen  years  ago,  and  at  least  10  of 
the  prefabricators  who  were  visited  had  worked  up  designs  for  unit 
bathrooms  or  bathroom-kitchens. 

A  design  for  a  bathroom  unit  which  was  in  production  at  the  time 
of  the  survey  was  that  of  Standard  Fabrication,  Inc.,  which  had  a 
guaranteed  market  contract  for  25,000  units.  The  unit  combined 

263 


bathtub,  adjustable  shower,  toilet,  lavatory,  storage  cabinet,  and 
medicine  cabinet  with  an  integral  low  partition— all  of  stamped  steel 
finished  with  porcelain  enamel.  The  final  dimensions  were  7%'  long, 


Figure  31.    Patent  Drawing  for  the  Integrated  Fuller  Bathroom 

4'  high,  and  2%'  wide,  making  it  possible  to  carry  the  unit  through 
any  door  and  install  it  in  any  room.  The  plumbing  was  built  in, 
requiring  only  four  site  connections,  with  supply  and  waste  lines  and 
vent  stacks. 


264 


B.  Mechanical  Cores 


The  discussion  of  plumbing  leads  naturally  to  the  mechanical  or 
utility  core.  The  desire  to  combine  all  the  plumbing,  heating,  and 
mechanical  elements  in  the  house  in  a  single  centralized  and  mass- 
produced  core  has  long  intrigued  designers.  Furthermore,  it  should 
be  possible  so  to  design  such  a  core  that  it  can  be  used  in  a  variety  of 
house  plans,  thereby  combining  in  a  single  unit  suited  to  production  in 
large  volume  many  of  the  troublesome  and  costly  ^elements  common  to 
all  houses  within  a  certain  range  of  sizes  and  types.  Since  several 
prefabricators  estimated  that  the  plumbing,  heating,  and  electrical 
subcontracts  alone  commonly  run  as  high  as  25%  of  the  total  cost  of 
the  house,  and  in  frequent  cases  even  higher,  this  concept  was  widely 
studied. 

A  mechanical  core  so  conceived  might  logically  become  a  starting 
point  for  the  rational  architectural  planning  of  the  whole  house,  but 
few  of  the  prefabricators  felt  they  could  afford  to  wait  until  the  ideal 
core  was  in  production,  or  to  make  major  alterations  in  their  designs 
to  fit  the  cores  already  on  the  market.  Still,  such  cores  as  there  were 
offered  the  advantage  of  very  great  compactness,  and  they  were  in 
the  main  well  suited  to  incorporation  into  prefabricated  houses.  Sev 
eral  of  the  prefabricators  tried  them  out.  Lustron  used  a  similar 
approach  in  the  design  and  production  of  its  own  plumbing  wall 
and  bathroom  fixtures,  and  at  least  five  others  were  working  on  their 
own  mechanical  cores,  including  Fuller.  The  cores  available  on  the 
market,  however,  were  not  produced  by  prefabricators. 

The  best  known  of  these  was  Borg- Warner  Corporation's  Ingersoll 
Utility  Unit  (see  Figure  32).  This  was  a  standard  unit  consisting  of 
a  mechanical  core  plus  kitchen  and  bathroom  equipment,  and  con 
taining  the  major  installations,  equipment,  and  controls  for  heat, 
electricity,  water,  and  gas.  In  the  mechanical  core  was  a  forced 
warm-air  furnace  with  blower,  air  filter,  and  thermostatic  controls; 
an  automatic  water  heater,  either  electric  or  gas;  a  prefabricated 
sewer  stack  and  vents;  a  prefabricated  copper  water-piping  assembly 
and  gas  lines;  a  chimney  flue  base  with  drafts  or  dampers,  depending 
on  fuel;  complete  wiring  and  multibreaker  for  all  components,  plus 
thinwall  conduit;  and  a  cold-air  return  system— all  mounted  within  a 
welded  steel  channel  frame  30"  wide,  94"  long,  and  77"  high,  with 
attached  wood  stripping  to  which  to  fasten  finishing  materials.  The 
kitchen  equipment  included  a  7  cu.  ft.  refrigerator,  a  single-bowl 
porcelain  enamel  sink  with  supply  and  waste  connections  to  the  core, 

265 


a  four-burner  range,  and  various  cabinets  and  lights.  The  bathroom 
equipment  included  tub,  lavatory,  and  water  closet,  together  with 
connections,  standard  accessories,  and  medicine  cabinet. 


Figure  32.    Exploded  Drawing  of  Ingersoll  Utility  Unit 

The  builder  or  contractor  installing  the  unit  had  to  supply  plenum 
chamber,  ducts,  registers,  and  chimney  piping  for  the  furnace;  lead-in 
lines  for  sewer,  water,  gas,  oil,  and  electricity  to  the  core;  soffits 
to  the  ceiling  above  the  core;  access  and  clean-out  panels;  and  plaster 
or  wallboard  sheathing  and  all  finishing  materials. 

266 


A  "deluxe"  model  added  laundry  equipment,  a  few  refinements,  and 
some  rather  larger  items  than  supplied  in  the  standard  model.  Borg- 
Warner  manufactured  many  of  the  elements  in  addition  to  assembling 
the  core  and  planned  eventually  to  manufacture  all  the  units  con 
tained  in  the  core.  At  the  time  of  the  survey,  the  unit  was  generally 
somewhat  more  expensive  than  comparable  equipment  assembled 
locally,  but  it  was  sometimes  able  to  compete  because  of  convenience 
of  installation  or  because  essential  elements  might  not  always  be 
locally  available.  A  few  prefabricators  were  using  this  core,  but 
most  were  proceeding  with  local  assembly,  with  an  eye  on  the  rela 
tive  cost  figures  (thus  making  it  difficult  for  Borg- Warner  to  realize 
the  economies  possible  through  mass  production  44 ) . 

A  different  approach  was  used  by  Timber  Structures,  Inc.,  the  pro 
ducer  of  Mobilcore.  This  was  actually  a  factory-built  kitchen,  bath 
room,  and  dinette  or  utility  room,  complete  and  ready  for  attachment 
to  a  new  or  old  house,  rather  than  just  a  core  and  equipment  package 
for  insertion  between  kitchen  and  bathroom.  In  one  model,  this  pre 
fabricated  section  was  24'  long,  8'  wide,  and  9'  high,  with  walls,  floors, 
and  ceiling  of  conventional  wood  frame  design  and  floors  factory 
finished  with  linoleum.  The  usual  fixtures,  attachments,  and  storage 
elements  came  in  the  standard  model,  with  heater,  hot-water  heater, 
laundry  tray,  storage  cabinet,  and  exterior  door  in  the  optional  utility 
room,  and  stove,  refrigerator,  and  mechanical  washer  also  optional 
features.  When  hooked  up  with  utilities,  this  unit  was  ready  to  use. 

An  interesting  sidelight  of  this  development  was  the  design  for  a 
rather  unusual  house  worked  out  by  the  company  as  the  result  of 
measures  taken  to  protect  the  unit  during  installation.  In  this  design 
the  basic  mechanical  unit  served  as  the  load-bearing  structure  on 
which  were  placed  cantilevered  trusses  to  support  not  only  the  roof 
but  also  a  set  of  non-load-bearing  exterior  curtain  walls.  This  sup 
ports  the  theory,  often  put  forward,  that  ultimately  the  rational  pre 
fabricated  house  will  be  an  outgrowth  of  the  mass-produced  mechani 
cal  core,  rather  than  the  reverse. 

Several  companies  evinced  interest  in  prefabricating  complete 
kitchen  units.  The  Puraire  kitchen,  for  example,  was  designed  for  use 
in  small  homes  and  in  converting  large  houses  to  housekeeping  apart 
ments.  It  came  complete  with  sink,  stove,  refrigerator,  and  storage 
facilities,  and  it  has  been  used  as  a  convenient  manner  of  supplying 
the  full  kitchen  equipment  in  at  least  one  development  of  prefabri- 

44  Borg-Warner  suspended  production  of  the  Ingersoll  Utility  Unit  on  June  30, 
1949.  In  the  words  of  Progressive  Architecture,  XXX  (June  1949),  1,  it  "failed 
to  meet  the  present  economy  demand  for  minimum  units." 

267 


cated  houses— that  for  married  veterans  at  Massachusetts  Institute  of 
Technology.  The  use  of  or  manufacture  of  such  partial  units,  and  of 
bathroom  units,  has  long  been  considered  by  the  prefabricators  but 
almost  none  were  actually  used  by  them  at  the  time  of  the  survey, 
for  reasons  of  cost,  design  complication,  and  marketing  difficulty. 
Presumably  the  other  problems  would  be  more  willingly  faced  were 
the  costs  to  come  down. 


C.  Heating 


Heating  is  an  important  element  of  any  scheme  for  housing  in  the 
greater  part  of  the  United  States,  and  the  prefabricators  were  well 
aware  of  this  fact.  They  followed  with  interest  the  recent  develop 
ments  of  the  heating  industry,  and  the  new  ideas  on  which  extensive 
research  was  being  done.  In  order  to  stay  within  the  price  range 
which  seemed  to  them  best  suited  to  the  concept  of  prefabrication, 
most  of  them  hesitated  to  try  anything  requiring  large  initial  capital 
investment.  At  the  same  time,  in  order  to  stay  well  within  what  they 
considered  the  range  of  general  public  acceptance,  most  of  them 
also  hesitated  to  try  anything  radically  new. 

Of  the  companies  visited,  70  had  decided  upon  a  specific  and 
standard  heating  layout  for  their  houses,  and,  of  these,  50  commonly 
supplied  the  heating  unit,  while  nine  more  offered  the  unit  at  the 
purchaser's  option.  At  least  50  of  the  companies  regularly  supplied 
prefabricated  stacks  or  flues  of  metal  or  asbestos  cement,  and  three 
more  supplied  them  at  the  option  of  the  purchaser.  Only  a  few  of 
the  prefabricators  attempted  to  take  advantage  of  their  quantity  pro 
duction  to  procure  a  heating  unit  specially  tailored  in  size  and  char 
acter  to  their  house;  the  Byrne  Organization  designed  a  boiler  for  its 
radiant-heated  floor  slab,  and  Lustron  an  overhead  heater  and  plenum 
chamber  for  its  radiant  heating  ceiling  panels. 

It  will  be  noted  that,  with  a  very  few  exceptions,  the  prefabricators 
have  avoided  the  use  of  hot-water  or  steam  piping  and  radiator-type 
heating  systems,  and  of  any  system  requiring  coal  as  a  fuel.  This  is 
clearly  the  result  of  a  balance  of  convenience  and  cheapness  of  in 
stallation  with  convenience  of  operation.  Certainly  the  most  popular 
heating  systems  from  the  point  of  view  of  the  prefabricators  were 
the  various  warm-air  systems.  In  areas  where  natural  gas  was  avail 
able  at  low  cost,  gas-fired  warm-air  systems  were  the  rule. 

268 


1.  Gravity  Warm-Air  Heating 

Gravity  warm-air  heating  systems  were  specified  by  14  companies, 
and,  of  these,  13  companies  regularly  furnished  the  furnace  as  part 
of  their  package.  Most  popular  seemed  to  be  the  floor  furnace, 
which  takes  up  a  minimum  amount  of  usable  living  space  and,  with 
proper  design,  gives  reasonably  satisfactory  performance  for  a  small 
house.  It  requires  no  ductwork  to  distribute  the  warm  air  and  is  for 
that  reason  probably  the  least  expensive  heater  in  terms  of  initial 
cost. 

In  some  cases,  two  warm-air  heaters  were  installed,  one  as  a  stand-by 
to  go  into  action  only  in  conditions  of  extreme  cold.  In  at  least  three 
cases,  a  vertical  stack  was  added  over  the  heater  to  speed  up  air 
movement  in  the  manner  of  a  chimney  and  to  get  more  even  heat 
distribution.  In  the  Kaiser  Community  Homes  house,  such  a  stack 
had  louvered  openings  near  the  ceiling,  which,  combined  with  the 
cool-air  intake  near  the  floor,  provided  a  better  circulation  of  air 
than  is  usually  possible  in  basementless  gravity  units. 


2.  Forced  Warm-Air  Heating 

Forced  warm-air  heating  was  specified  by  22  companies,  although 
in  several  cases  only  as  an  optional  feature.  Only  a  few  found  it 
advisable  to  furnish  such  units  for  use  with  conventional  duct  sys 
tems.  At  least  13  companies  supplied  prefabricated  ducts,  plenums, 
and  even  risers  with  their  packages,  and,  when  required  to  do  so  for 
houses  with  basements,  they  provided  the  necessary  risers,  ducts,  and 
grilles  in  the  walls.  In  basementless  houses,  some  of  the  companies 
supplied  prefabricated  plenum  chambers  of  metal  or  asbestos  cement, 
usually  concealed  above  a  dropped  ceiling  in  the  central  hall,  to 
distribute  the  heat  from  the  warm-air  discharge  to  various  sections 
of  the  house. 

Interesting  technical  developments  coming  on  the  market  at  the 
time  of  the  survey  but  not  yet  used  by  the  prefabricators  included 
very  compact  furnaces  designed  to  make  use  of  high-powered  com 
bustion  principles  worked  out  during  the  war  for  aircraft  heating  and 
to  distribute  the  heat  through  flexible  hosing  instead  of  ducts;  these 
were  based  on  concepts  of  few  moving  parts  and  high  operating 
efficiency. 

269 


3.  Radiant  Panel  Heating 

Widely  discussed  in  general,  radiant  panel  heating  systems  have 
been  of  particular  interest  to  the  prefabricates.  Since  such  systems 
require  careful  engineering  and  close  adjustment  to  the  characteristics 
of  the  house  in  which  they  are  to  be  installed,  and  since  the  cost  of 
installation  in  some  cases  shows  promise  of  coming  down  to  the 
small-house  range  only  through  the  application  of  industrial  tech 
niques  and  repetitive  production,  their  use  would  seem  to  offer  a  spe 
cial  advantage  to  those  who  manufacture  a  limited  range  of  models 
in  large-quantity  production  and  who  can,  therefore,  afford  to  spend 
money  for  a  careful  integration  of  the  house  and  heating  design  and 
for  the  necessary  tooling  up.  Houses  which  offered  radiant  heating 
without  excessive  cost,  whether  in  the  floor,  walls,  or  ceiling,  and 
whether  by  means  of  warm  air,  hot  water,  or  electric  resistance  ele 
ments,  appeared  to  have  gained,  because  of  general  public  interest 
and  favor,  a  sales  advantage  over  those  which  offered  conventional 
heating. 

Radiant  floors  were  the  most  common  of  the  radiant  systems  in 
stalled  or  specified  by  prefabricators  at  the  time  of  our  survey.  At 
least  nine  of  the  companies  were  using  them  or  were  planning  to  do 
so,  six  with  concrete  floor  slabs  in  basementless  houses  and  three  with 
wood  floor  systems.  Of  the  concrete  slab  installations,  the  majority 
circulated  hot  water  in  copper  tubing.  The  Harundale  project  of  the 
Byrne  Organization  had  a  40-gallon,  specially  designed  hot-water 
boiler  which  also  supplied  the  hot-water  needs  of  the  house,  and  a 
pump  to  circulate  the  hot  water  through  copper  tubing  which  was 
spaced  at  V  intervals  in  most  of  the  slab  and  somewhat  closer  in  the 
kitchen  and  bathroom.  In  this  fairly  typical  installation,  slab  surface 
temperature  was  designed  for  85°  F.,  and  it  was  hoped  to  keep  heat 
loss  into  the  ground  as  low  as  10%.  The  economies  of  combining  do 
mestic  hot  water  and  heating,  and  of  obtaining  an  efficient  design 
of  floor  slab  for  a  cold  climate,  together  with  potential  fuel  economies, 
had  to  be  balanced  against  somewhat  higher  installation  cost  and 
several  recognized  design  problems.  These  included  the  problems 
caused  by  time  lag  in  supplying  or  in  reducing  heat  because  of  the 
large  mass  of  the  concrete  slab,  the  need  to  provide  against  accidental 
blocking  or  progressive  obstruction  of  the  tubing,  the  complications 
caused  by  rugs  and  other  floor  coverings,  the  interferences  resulting 
from  other  plumbing  and  mechanical  installations,  and  the  measures 
which  must  be  taken  to  protect  against  freezing  the  water  and  burst 
ing  the  tubing  during  unheated  periods  in  extremely  cold  weather. 

270 


Three  companies  had  erected  experimental  models  of  systems  which 
made  a  radiant  panel  of  a  wood  floor  system  by  using  the  space  be 
tween  the  floor  and  the  ground  slab  of  a  basementless  house  as  a 
plenum  chamber  heated  by  forced  warm  air.  In  an  experimental 
house  built  by  the  Field  Detroit  Co.,  warm  air  was  forced  into  the 
plenum  at  the  center  and  returned  to  the  house  through  registers 
located  beneath  the  windows.  In  the  Green's  Ready-Built  house, 
warm  air  was  first  circulated  through  the  house,  then  returned  through 
registers  to  the  underfloor  plenum,  and  eventually  carried  back  to  the 
furnace.  (This  system  was  not  approved  by  the  FHA.)  The  Solar 
Homes  Co.  used  warm  air  circulated  in  the  space  between  the  floor 
joists,  which  was  covered  and  insulated  at  the  bottom  to  produce 
a  sort  of  duct. 

Three  other  companies  were  experimenting  with  forced  warm  air 
in  various  hollow  slab  or  tile  systems. 

Radiant  walls  were  not  in  production  among  the  prefabricators 
visited,  although  a  few  were  experimenting  with  them.  This  was  in 
part  the  result  of  the  difficulty  of  designing  a  heating  system  for  uni 
form  performance  at  different  distances  from  the  walls  and  for  sur 
faces  which  are  complicated  by  numerous  openings  and  many  insula 
tion  problems. 

Radiant  ceilings  were  scheduled  for  regular  production  in  only  two 
houses.  One  of  these  was  the  Lustron  house,  the  heating  system  of 
which  has  already  been  described  on  p.  247.  The  other  was  the  Mod 
ern  Standardized  Buildings  Co.  house,  in  which  warm  air  was  heated 
as  it  rose  through  a  series  of  finned  hot-water  coils  and  was  then 
conducted  into  a  plenum  at  the  ceiling,  made  up  of  a  sheet  of  %" 
asbestos  cement  which  was  suspended  2"  below  a  sheet  of  aluminum 
foil  backed  by  2"  of  blanket  insulation.  A  %"  open  space  between 
the  edge  of  this  plenum  and  the  wall  permitted  the  warm  air  to 
circulate  down  into  the  house  area  and  then  to  return  to  the  heater. 

These  two  systems  reflect  the  design  interest  in  ceiling  installations 
which  many  consider  the  most  satisfactory  from  the  point  of  view 
of  the  physiological  needs  of  the  body.  Unhampered  by  the  large 
mass  of  the  floor  slab  and  by  the  problem  of  floor  coverings,  the  ceil 
ing  panel  can  be  highly  efficient  in  its  action  and  can  greatly  assist 
the  development  of  open  and  flexible  planning;  nevertheless,  it  cre 
ates  the  new  difficulties  of  installing  a  somewhat  complex  structure 
at  ceiling  height  and  of  insulating  it  against  heat  loss  upward  into 
the  attic  or  roof  areas.  Other  new  techniques  such  as  the  use  of 
electric  resistance  panels,  either  of  a  special  rubber  material  such  as 

271 


the  United  States  Rubber  Company's  Uskon,  or  of  conductive  alumi 
num  alloy  fused  into  tempered  glass,  were  being  carefully  studied 
where  costs  of  electric  power  were  sufficiently  low  (1%^  Per  kilowatt 
hour  or  less),  because  of  the  possibilities  offered  for  extremely  low 
installation  costs  and  efficient  use  of  heat. 


4.  Solar  Heating 

Very  few  companies  at  the  time  of  our  survey  were  attempting  any 
considerable  use  of  solar  radiation  to  heat  their  houses,  and  those  few 
were  interested  only  in  the  use  of  large  so-called  "solar"  windows, 
facing  directly  south  and  so  shielded  that  the  sun  can  penetrate  the 
window  and  warm  the  interior  space  in  winter  but  cannot  penetrate 
in  summer.  This  idea  has  captured  the  imagination  of  many  archi 
tects  and,  to  some  extent,  the  public.  The  technical,  psychological, 
and  esthetic  arguments  and  pronouncements  pro  and  con  are  well 
known  and  need  not  be  rehearsed  here. 

Green's  Ready-Built  solar  house  was  designed  expressly  to  utilize 
solar  heat.  Most  of  the  living  spaces  had  large  windows  to  the  south, 
so  that  the  house  tended  to  be  long  and  narrow,  running  from  east  to 
west.  The  design  of  the  windows,  with  fixed  glass  and  openable, 
louvered,  and  screened  ventilation  areas  above  and  below,  has  been 
discussed  on  p.  232.  There  was  also  added  to  the  exterior  of  the  house 
a  series  of  louvered  screens  projecting  from  the  wall  between  window 
areas,  which  served  to  protect  the  windows  against  late  afternoon  sun 
shine  without  interfering  with  the  flow  of  air  along  the  southern  front 
of  the  house.  This  house,  frankly  designed  for  the  middle-income 
group,  received  a  good  deal  of  architectural  acclaim,  but  it  was  never 
put  into  mass  production,  at  first  because  of  limitations  imposed  by 
the  Veterans'  Emergency  Housing  Program  and  later  because  of  the 
failure  of  the  company. 

No  prefabricator  was  known  to  have  made  any  attempt  to  put  into 
production  a  heating  system  designed  to  trap  the  solar  radiation  im 
pinging  on  the  house,  to  use  some  of  it  for  immediate  heating,  and  to 
store  the  rest  for  later  use  when  solar  radiation  is  not  available.  Re 
search  in  this  field  is  followed  with  interest  in  many  quarters,  but  is 
not  yet  at  a  stage  where  its  advantages  or  disadvantages  are  clearly 
known. 


272 


D.  Electrical  Wiring  and  Fixtures 

The  intended  position  of  electrical  outlets  was  specified  by  69  com 
panies,  and  49  prefabricated  their  wiring  to  some  degree.  Of  these 
latter,  11  simply  precut  it,  nine  factory-installed  dummy  lines  in  the 
conduit  to  help  the  electricians  pull  through  the  wires  in  the  field,  and 
27  actually  preinstalled  the  wiring,  usually  in  wall  panels.  Most  of 
these  companies  used  BX  or  Romex  cable  rather  than  rigid  metal 
conduit,  and  in  some  communities  they  encountered  code  difficulties 
on  that  score. 

The  average  prefabricated  wiring  system  had  outlets  in  the  wall 
panels,  with  the  connecting  cable  stapled  or  clipped  by  brackets  to  the 
structural  members  or  run  through  conduit  cast  in  the  walls.  The 
connecting  wire  usually  projected  through  the  top  or  bottom  edge  of 
the  panel,  with  the  balance  of  the  wiring  placed  inside  during  ship 
ment,  ready  to  be  pulled  into  position  in  the  attic  or  crawl  space  at 
the  site,  and  attached  to  major  circuits  and  to  service  leads  from 
outside. 

A  few  companies  had  devised  systems  for  prefabricating  the  major 
circuit  wiring  (for  example,  by  stapling  connecting  wires  to  a  board 
running  the  length  of  the  attic  space)  so  that  all  that  was  necessary 
at  the  site,  after  connecting  house  circuits,  was  to  connect  this  "har 
ness"  to  the  service  leads.  In  such  a  case,  the  meter  and  a  master 
circuit  breaker  or  fuse  box,  or  both,  were  also  wired  and  installed  on  a 
panel  in  advance. 

Most  prefabricators  felt  that  the  savings  possible  from  prefabricat 
ing  their  electric  wiring,  if  their  construction  permitted  it  at  all,  were 
not  great  enough  to  justify  the  probable  difficulties  with  code  and 
labor  which  would  result.  Many  companies  which  had  no  wall  panels 
adapted  to  prefabricated  wiring  of  this  sort  used  a  channel  behind 
the  baseboard  or  a  molding  attached  to  the  baseboard  to  carry  the 
wiring  inside  it.  In  concrete  systems  there  frequently  were  metal  or 
cardboard  conduits  cast  in  place.  In  all  systems  there  seemed  to  be  a 
general  desire  to  keep  the  outlets  at  or  near  baseboard  level,  and  to 
run  cable  for  ceiling  or  wall  fixtures  or  switches  up  behind  batten 
strips  at  joints,  or  inside  door  casings.  For  example,  Southern  Cali 
fornia  Homes  used  a  2"  box  section  at  the  base  of  its  panel,  among 
other  reasons,  for  wiring,  and  ran  wiring  for  three  wall  and  overhead 
fixtures  and  a  few  switches  inside  the  channels  which  served  as  the 
edges  of  the  panels,  the  wiring  being  placed  in  these  channels  before 
they  were  bonded  to  the  skin  surfaces  of  the  panels. 

273 


Few  companies  had  given  special  attention  to  the  design  of  lighting 
fixtures  or  to  a  general  lighting  plan,  although  in  this  field  lies  another 
possible  advantage  of  the  prefabricator  over  the  conventional  builder. 
Such  companies  as  were  concerned  about  fixtures  had  for  the  most 
part  concentrated  on  getting  maximum  procurement  advantages  from 
mass  orders  without,  so  far  as  was  seen,  attempting  to  engineer  and 
produce  a  house  in  which  lighting  might  reach  a  standard  of  high 
performance. 


E.  Acoustical  Treatment 


A  very  few  companies  had  given  serious  attention  to  the  acoustical 
properties  of  their  houses,  and  these  were  the  companies  offering 
houses  of  unconventional  design  or  construction  which  might  give 
rise  to  particular  problems.  Even  they  relied  primarily  on  the 
furnishings  for  the  deadening  of  sound.  Only  one  house  (Green's 
Ready-Built)  is  known  to  have  made  use  of  acoustical  tile  for  its 
standard  ceiling  surface. 

No  attempt  was  made  in  this  survey  to  make  scientific  acoustic 
measurements  or  tests,  but  there  were  many  houses  in  which  reverbe 
ration  was  noted,  and  several  more  in  which  the  partitions  and  doors 
could  not  have  been  much  above  the  level  of  acoustical  transparency. 
The  problem  would  have  been  much  more  prominent  had  the  com 
panies  visited  not  limited  their  interests  primarily  to  the  prefabrica- 
tion  of  small  detached  houses.  No  doubt,  more  attention  will  be 
devoted  in  the  future  than  at  present  to  the  noise  problem,  even 
in  such  detached  houses,  for  in  lightweight  construction  noise  may 
cause  a  great  deal  of  unpleasantness  and  yet  its  solution  is  known  to  be 
neither  complex  nor  unduly  expensive. 


F.  Built-in  Furniture 


Many  of  the  prefabricators  were  aware  of  the  advantages  they  could 
offer  over  conventional  builders  by  building  in  elements  of  furniture 
and  storage  at  the  plant,  particularly  when  it  was  possible  in  this  way 
to  make  use  of  scraps  of  material  which  would  otherwise  be  wasted 
and,  by  the  use  of  their  regular  equipment,  to  produce  articles  which 
could  hardly  be  duplicated  at  the  site  for  comparable  costs.  Thus 

274 


one  company  (Red-E-Bilt  Homes)  offered  a  series  of  inexpensive 
built-in  features  (a  mahogany- veneered  ceiling  in  the  entry,  a  kitchen 
ceiling  vent,  ironing  board,  and  spice  cabinet,  and,  in  the  garage,  a 
workbench)  which,  in  its  opinion,  added  considerably  to  the  sales 
appeal  of  the  house. 

At  least  73  companies  regularly  supplied  kitchen  sink  cabinets  as  a 
part  of  the  package,  and  66  supplied  other  kitchen  cabinets,  but  six 
companies  supplied  kitchen  cabinets  only  as  an  optional  feature.  All 
their  cabinets  were  manufactured  by  31  companies,  in  each  case  out 
of  wood.  Several  said  they  did  so  only  because  of  cabinet  shortages, 
but  many  others  found  that  they  could  in  this  way  make  use  of  facili 
ties  which  were  well  suited  to  this  kind  of  work. 

Other  built-in  features  included  dining  tables  (seven  companies), 
bureaus,  or  dressing  tables  and  drawer  space  (eight  companies),  and 
storage  or  closet  walls  (17  companies).  All  these  features  appeared 
to  be  growing  in  popularity,  particularly  the  use  of  storage  or  closet 
walls  in  place  of  partitions,  with  the  storage  and  closet  areas  prop 
erly  subdivided  and  drawers  provided  where  necessary.  Such  storage- 
walls  were  supplied  primarily  in  construction  systems  permitting  the 
use  of  non-load-bearing  partitions. 

Building  in  furniture  to  a  greater  degree  than  this  was  limited 
to  a  few  companies  offering  minimum  plans  in  which  high  efficiency 
was  possible  only  through  special  design  of  the  furnishings  as  well 
as  of  the  structure  itself,  and  to  a  few  other  companies  offering  houses 
for  special  purposes;  for  example,  in  the  construction  areas  of  the 
Tennessee  Valley  Authority,  where  it  was  found  practical  and  eco 
nomical  to  build  completely  finished  houses,  to  transport  them  to  the 
site  in  sections,  and  to  move  them  away  to  a  new  site  when  the  occa 
sion  demanded. 

Though  none  of  the  prefabricators  had  actually  made  designs,  a 
few  were  considering  plans  in  which  certain  standard  elements  such 
as  beds  might  be  built  in,  which  would  afford  the  extra  saving  of  not 
having  to  finish  the  floor  under  the  bed  as  well  as  the  possibility  of 
using  the  space  under  the  bed  for  storage  drawers. 


G.  Space  Arrangement 

Without  a  detailed  consideration  of  floor  plans  and  other  architec 
tural  elements,  the  quality  of  architectural  space  planning  cannot  be 
properly  discussed.  On  the  other  hand,  space  planning  in  small 

275 


Figure  33.  Plans  of  Selected  Prefabricated  Houses.  These  plans  are  presented  on 
a  uniform  4'  grid  so  that  the  allocation  of  space  and  the  overall  areas  may  readily 
be  compared.  Kitchen,  bath,  and  utility  area  have  been  shaded.  A  number  of 
unconventional  houses  have  been  included  for  contrast,  as  have  the  plans  of 

three-bedroom  models. 


276 


Gunnison  Homes  •  Basic 


Shelter  Industries 


Ibec  Corp. 


Lustron  Corp.  -  Standard 


Southern  Calif.  Homes 


Crawford  Corp.  •  Basic 


Lustron  Corp.  -  Economy 


American  Houses  •  Basic 


Airform  House  •  Typical 


Fuller  House 


BR. 


BR. 


LIVING 


LeTourneau  •  Typical 


Green's  Ready-Built  Homes 
Veterans 


Lustron  Corp. 


Gunnison  Homes 


BR. 


BR. 


BR.  BR. 


BR.     HE     3  DINING 


LIVING 


Crawford  Corp. 


PORCH 


BR. 


LIVING 


houses  is  largely  dictated  by  the  needs  of  family  living,  and  while 
there  is  no  single  rational  approach  to  the  small  house  plan,  the  com 
bined  pressure  of  needs  and  costs  greatly  limits  the  choices  open  to 
the  designer.  Most  of  the  plans  were  in  many  respects  similar,  as  a 
result  (see  Figure  33).  This  aspect  of  the  subject  has  been  well 
treated  in  architectural  sources  and  needs  no  further  development 
here. 

It  is  important,  however,  to  give  some  idea  of  the  standards  of  space 
provided  by  the  pref abricators  at  the  time  of  the  survey.  The  follow 
ing  summary  averages  the  room  sizes  of  the  most  popular  plans  and 
models  of  typical  companies.  The  figures  give  the  number  of  com 
panies  from  which  the  average  was  compiled  as  well  as  the  average 
itself: 


Number 

Average 

of  Com 

Size 

panies 

Room 

Of.//.) 

48 

Living 

199 

12 

Living-dining 

220 

34 

Kitchen 

92 

25 

Kitchen-dining 

116 

20 

Dining  area  l 

76 

62 

Master  bedroom 

136 

59 

2nd  bedroom 

108 

12 

3rd  bedroom  2 

113 

39 

Closet  area 

34 

16 

Other  storage  area 

58 

22 

Utility 

52 

13 

Covered  porch 

63 

1  There  were  very  few  companies  with  separate  dining  rooms.    These  were  usually  ells. 

2  More  two-bedroom  than  three-bedroom  houses  were  minimum  in  space  planning. 

Combining  the  figures  for  average  room  sizes,  we  find  that  the  three 
different  combinations  of  living-dining-kitchen  areas  result  in  aver 
age  houses  (allowing  10%  wastage  in  floor  planning)  of  the  following 
floor  areas:  two-bedroom  house,  770,  773,  or  830  sq.  ft.;  and  three- 
bedroom  house,  894,  898,  or  955  sq.  ft. 

Trends  in  the  matter  of  space  planning  included  an  increasing  use 
of  truss  roofs,  with  the  resulting  freedom  of  interior  arrangement,  and 
an  increasing  interest  in  the  three-bedroom  house.  The  Kaiser  Com 
munity  Homes  project  in  Los  Angeles  built  only  three-bedroom  houses, 
and  many  of  the  more  conventional  wood  prefabricators  were  turn 
ing  to  story-and-a-half  houses  in  order  to  get  extra  bedroom  space, 
although  at  the  time  of  the  survey  many  of  them  were  leaving  this 
second-story  space  unfinished  for  later  finishing  by  the  purchaser. 

280 


The  prefabricated  house,  on  the  average,  was  not  generally  dis 
tinguishable  from  the  conventional  product  in  respect  to  the  space 
allocated  to  closets,  utility  room,  bathroom,  or  kitchen,  although  there 
were  instances  in  which  prefabricated  houses  offered  increased  effi 
ciency  in  respect  to  all  of  these.  Of  the  two,  there  was  more  likeli 
hood  that  one  would  find  space  wasted  or  inefficiently  used  in  the 
conventional  house.  In  a  carefully  prepared  ratio  of  usable  or  effi 
cient  space  to  price,  the  average  prefabricator  would  probably  do 
better  than  the  average  conventional  builder. 

The  previous  summary  indicates  that  at  least  13  companies  offered 
covered  porches.  Despite  many  architectural  and  marketing  advan 
tages  favoring  such  a  combined  entranceway,  play,  recreation,  and 
storage  space,  it  was  not  generally  offered  as  a  standard  part  of  the 
prefabrication  package. 

There  had  been  little  experience  with  the  practical  effectiveness  of 
the  very  different  space  relationships  offered  in  houses  of  specialized 
construction  and  form,  such  as  the  Fuller  or  Neff  house,  since  almost 
no  houses  of  this  type  had  reached  the  common  market  in  this  coun 
try.  Published  descriptions  of  these  houses  met  with  a  strong  interest 
and,  in  certain  segments  of  the  public,  with  a  decided  approval. 
Further  than  this,  the  many  attractive  adaptations  of  the  "Quonset" 
hut  structures  as  houses  in  the  last  few  years  have  added  to  the  evi 
dence  that  space  planning  and  relationships  quite  different  from  those 
believed  to  be  required  by  the  general  public  may  be  found  to  be 
entirely  acceptable. 


H.  Product  Variety 


1.  Quality  Standards 

More  than  one  quality  standard  in  their  houses  were  offered  by  15 
companies,  with  the  difference  lying  primarily  in  the  materials  used, 
in  the  size  and  spacing  of  members,  or  in  the  degree  of  finish  and 
number  of  fixtures  added.  A  common  practice  was  for  a  company  to 
offer  one  house  for  sale  on  the  general  market  to  individual  homeown 
ers,  and  substantially  the  same  house,  but  of  different  quality  stand 
ard,  for  sale  to  industrial  concerns  or  developers  buying  groups  of 
houses  for  rental  or  sale,  typically  in  new  communities.  Or  a  com- 

281 


pany  might  offer  one  version  of  a  house  which  would  be  eligible  for 
FHA  insurance  or  pass  certain  building  codes,  and  another  version 
which  would  not. 

Typifying  the  latter  production  plan  was  U.  S.  Homes,  Inc.,  which 
offered  a  "Suburban  Home"  and  a  "Village  Home."  Essentially  the 
same  in  general  appearance  and  floor  plan,  the  "Suburban"  had  a 
finish  floor  of  oak  and  inlaid  linoleum,  while  the  "Village"  had  south 
ern  pine  tongue  and  groove  flooring  and  printed  felt-base  linoleum. 
The  "Suburban"  had  bathtub,  laundry  tray,  medicine  cabinet,  hot- 
water  heater,  and  forced  air  heater  with  ducts  supplied  with  the 
package,  while  the  "Village"  had  none  of  these.  The  "Suburban"  also 
had  linoleum  covering  over  its  sink  cabinet. 


2.  Basic  Design  Standards 

Several  basic  design  standards  were  offered  by  13  of  the  companies, 
either  to  reach  a  wider  market  or  to  experiment  with  very  different 
designs  produced  at  the  same  time  and  under  the  same  conditions. 
Thus,  Texas  Housing  Co.  produced  a  "Town  and  Country"  house  of 
768  sq.  ft.  floor  area  with  more  or  less  conventional  wood  frame 
design,  and  also  a  16'  X  16'  "Homette"  developed  from  army  hut 
ment  designs  and  having  a  pyramidal  roof  of  the  same  2"  plywood 
panel  construction  as  the  walls.  The  former  was  acceptable  for  FHA 
insurance  and  would  pass  most  building  codes,  while  the  latter  was 
designed  for  emergency  situations,  for  public  or  university  temporary 
minimum  housing,  or  for  owner-built  houses  for  temporary  use  or 
in  minimum  housing  areas. 


3.  Architectural  Styles 

The  houses  of  any  one  company  were  usually  of  a  single  architec 
tural  style  or  character,  but  17  companies  offered  two  styles,  four 
offered  three,  and  five  offered  more  than  three,  most  of  the  last  be 
ing  those  companies  which  were  prepared  to  make  up  nearly  any 
style  desired  on  a  job-lot  basis.  Often  those  offering  more  than  one 
style  were  offering  a  "modern"  house  with  flat  roof  to  see  how  well  it 
would  sell  in  the  prevailing  market,  and  generally  the  companies  do- 

282 


ing  this  reported  that  their  "modern"  models  were  not  doing  very  well. 
This  may  represent  a  market  prejudice,  but  it  was  probably  also  a 
reflection  of  the  quality  of  the  design  which  some  of  the  prefabri- 
cators  termed  "modern." 

There  has  been  an  earlier  discussion  of  the  general  matter  of  archi 
tectural  style  on  pp.  194-6,  but  it  may  be  added  that  most  of  the  prefab 
ricated  houses  on  the  market  at  the  time  of  the  survey  were  supposedly 
reminiscent  of,  and  often  termed,  Cape  Cod  cottages.  Since  many  of 
the  prefabricators  preferred  not  to  have  to  supply  such  details  as 
shutters  (where  these  were  supplied  they  often  were  long,  hanging 
well  below  the  window  sill  to  give  an  appearance  of  larger  windows ) , 
colonial  entrances,  and  the  like,  there  was  also  a  tendency  to  call  the 
resulting  unornamented,  pitched-roof  house  by  the  style  name  of 
"American  cottage."  There  was  also  a  tendency  towards  a  new 
name,  and  partly  also  towards  a  real  style,  called  the  "ranch  house," 
theoretically  all  on  one  floor,  with  large  windows  and  good  cross 
ventilation,  rambling  in  character,  and  incorporating  several  outdoor 
living  areas,  although  in  a  small  prefabricated  house  these  aims  were 
rarely  accomplished  in  fact. 


4.  Achieving  Variety 

There  appeared  to  be,  at  the  time  of  the  survey,  a  definite  opinion 
on  the  part  of  many  prefabricators  (and  probably  of  much  of  the 
general  public  as  well)  that  some  sort  of  variety  would  have  to  be 
offered  in  prefabricated  houses,  on  the  theory  that  people  insist  on 
individuality  in  their  homes,  particularly  if  large  projects  are  to  be 
made  up  of  the  same  units.  However,  the  architects  of  some  of  the 
companies  were  satisfied  that  variation  in  actual  form  and  space  ar 
rangement  could  be  very  limited  and  still  give  the  public  what  it 
wants;  they  tended  to  agree  that  the  worst  form  of  monotony  is  the 
monotony  of  slight  variation.  Some  of  the  largest  enterprises  were 
offering  a  single  model,  without  even  the  variation  of  left  and  right 
plans,  presumably  on  the  theory  that  mass  production  should  start 
with  maximum  standardization  and  that  the  resulting  product  should 
be  superior  enough  to  that  of  its  competitors  to  attract  purchasers  de 
spite  any  emotional  resistance  they  might  feel  at  first  to  the  idea  of 
standardized  houses.  The  subtleties  and  merits  of  the  arguments  pro 
and  con  need  not  be  rehearsed  here,  but  it  does  seem  to  be  a  fact 

283 


that  the  largest  volumes,  and  in  many  ways  the  lowest  costs,  were 
being  reached  by  those  offering  the  least  variety  and  relying  on  color 
and  good  site  planning  for  the  creation  of  distinction  within  a  general 
pattern. 

Many  more  prefabricators,  however,  sought  to  make  nominal  vari 
ety  possible  on  easy  terms  by  offering  different  types  of  entrance,  of 
exterior  finishing  material,  of  window  trim,  of  shutters,  porches,  gar 
ages,  breezeways,  and  of  colors,  all  amplified  by  right  and  left  plans. 
Of  these,  a  substantial  number  found  it  practical  in  effect  to  limit 
their  prefabrication  to  a  chassis  of  some  sort  and  to  finish  the  houses  in 
the  field  with  a  wide  variety  of  "treatments."  They  represented  a 
sort  of  mid-position  between  those  who  believed  that  maximum  econ 
omies  could  be  achieved  only  by  strict  standardization  of  the  com 
plete  house  and  those  who  believed  that  the  public  could  best  be 
served  by  a  maximum  standardization  only  of  the  panels  and  assembly 
parts,  leaving  it  to  the  local  man  to  put  these  elements  together  in 
any  form  he  might  wish.  It  has  not  been  possible  as  yet  to  determine 
with  any  degree  of  assurance  what  the  market  will  show  with  refer 
ence  to  these  varying  points  of  view. 


5.  Models 

Assuming  the  same  structural  system  and  architectural  style,  many 
companies  offered  variety  through  different  floor  plans— sometimes 
different  only  in  arrangement,  but  usually  different  also  in  size.  At 
the  time  of  the  survey,  14  companies  offered  two  plans,  seven  offered 
three  plans,  12  offered  four  or  five  plans,  16  offered  five  to  ten  plans, 
five  offered  11  to  25  plans,  two  more  than  25  plans,  and  six  any  plan 
at  all,  depending  upon  the  order.  Further  than  that,  at  least  21  com 
panies  offered  both  right  and  left  plans. 

Several  of  the  companies,  after  having  offered  a  variety  of  models 
and  having  learned  that  certain  ones  sold  badly,  discontinued  produc 
tion  of  the  less  popular  models.  Thus,  Kaiser  Community  Homes 
originally  offered  both  two-bedroom  and  three-bedroom  houses  in 
the  Los  Angeles  area,  but  at  the  time  of  the  survey  only  the  three- 
bedroom  model  was  being  produced.  Harnischfeger,  after  having 
limited  the  number  of  models,  was  able  to  achieve  further  economies 
by  producing  the  components  of  the  remaining  models  in  larger  panel 
sizes. 

284 


6.  Flexibility  within  the  House 

There  is  a  common  belief  that  one  advantage  of  the  prefabricated 
house  is  the  ability  to  alter  or  add  to  it  at  pleasure.  Actually  only  22 
companies  emphasized  the  possibility  of  adding  rooms  or  wings,  sup 
plied  by  them,  at  a  later  date.  Few,  if  any,  stressed  the  possibility 
of  moving  partitions  about  to  meet  changing  family  needs  or  de 
veloped  designs  pointing  out  various  alternatives,  even  when  truss 
roof  construction  would  permit  this.  Although  certain  designs,  par 
ticularly  the  modular  panel  systems  with  universal  interlocking  joints, 
had  a  basic  demountability  which  might  lend  itself  to  rearrangement 
or  addition  over  the  years,  particularly  if  this  desire  is  taken  into 
account  in  planning  the  layout  and  capacities  of  the  mechanical  sys 
tem,  there  had  been  little  actual  experience  with  this  sort  of  thing 
other  than  the  experience  with  the  demountable  war  housing.  When 
the  time  came  to  move  these  houses,  all  of  which  were  carefully 
designed  to  be  demountable,  most  of  them  were  simply  sawed  into  sec 
tions  and  carried  off  without  taking  the  trouble  to  follow  the  dis 
mantling  system.  Nevertheless,  many  of  the  prefabricators  offered 
schemes  which  were  to  some  degree  demountable  and  which  offered 
possibilities  of  obtaining  elasticity  of  plan  through  moving  component 
elements,  adding  other  elements,  or  taking  elements  away  and  replac 
ing  them  with  others.  Important  economies  might  be  gained  through 
planning  for  re-use  value  or  resale  and  secondhand  value.  None  of 
these  possibilities  had  been  tested  in  the  market,  however,  and  the 
tremendous  site  planning  problems  involved  had  hardly  been  con 
sidered. 


285 


Part      A  A  • 

Chapter    C_7 


PROCUREMENT 


This  chapter  and  the  following  one  are  devoted  to  two  phases  of 
the  actual  manufacturing  process:  procurement  and  production.  The 
distinction  between  these  two  seems  easy  to  make;  procurement  is  the 
purchasing  of  the  materials  and  finished  goods  which  pass  through 
the  prefabricated  plant,  and  production  is  the  actual  business  of 
performing  work  on  material  to  produce  a  product.  Yet  the  line  is 
sometimes  hard  to  draw;  for  instance,  are  those  prefabricators  who  do 
no  more  than  assemble  a  house  package  from  fabricated  components 
purchased  from  others  engaging  in  procurement  or  production?  This 
difficulty  of  distinction  emphasizes  the  point  that  economies  may  ac 
crue  to  the  prefabricator  as  much  because  of  the  large  scale  of  his 
operations,  particularly  in  procurement,  as  because  of  his  skill  in  fac 
tory  production  per  se.  It  is  important  to  understand  the  advantages, 
real  or  potential,  which  stem  from  each  of  these  two  phases  of  the 
manufacturing  process. 

Procurement  advantages  stem  primarily  from  size.  It  is  the  fact 
that  the  prefabricator  buys  in  carload  lots,  that  he  must  spend  large 
amounts  of  working  capital  for  materials  inventories,  and  that  he  is  in 
a  position  to  carry  out  himself  the  functions  of  handling,  sorting, 
grading,  and  repackaging,  which  puts  him  in  a  position  to  buy  direct 
from  the  manufacturer.  Such  advantages  are,  naturally,  available  to 
either  a  prefabricator  or  a  large  operative  builder,  and  it  is  a  fact  that 
at  the  time  of  the  survey  the  largest  operative  builder  and  the 
largest  prefabricators  were  of  roughly  the  same  size,  judged  by  their 
volume  (1,000-3,000  houses  per  year).1 

In  the  following  pages  are  examined  the  prefabricator's  procure 
ment  policies  and  the  extent  to  which  he  was,  in  fact,  able  to  lower 
his  costs  in  three  kinds  of  purchases:  raw  materials,  finished  items 
for  which  he  acted  as  a  jobber,  and  fabricated  components. 


I.  Raw  Materials 


It  is  significant  that  most  companies  at  the  time  of  the  survey 
thought  that  cost  reductions  were  more  likely  to  be  realized  through 
a  change  in  the  conventional  materials  distribution  system  than 

i  Levitt,  3,000  in  1947;  American  Houses,  1,600  in  1947;  Kaiser  Community 
Homes,  2,500  in  1947;  National  Homes,  2,500  in  1947. 

289 


through  any  other  single  factor  in  the  whole  realm  of  manufacturing. 
This  was  particularly  true,  of  course,  of  those  companies  which 
counted  on  volume  production  rather  than  on  unconventional  con 
struction  or  materials  for  their  economies,  and  it  seemed  to  be  the 
case  whether  or  not  the  firms  had  as  yet  actually  realized  such  econ 
omies. 

Certainly  there  would  seem  to  be  potentialities  for  cost  reduction 
in  the  distribution  of  materials.  The  following  table  shows  one  esti 
mate  of  the  cost  of  distributing  one  dollar's  worth  of  several  building 
materials  from  the  manufacturer  to  the  site: 

Cost    of    Distributing    Building    Materials    through    Conventional 
Channels 


Cost  of  Distribution 

Combined  Profits 

Material 

Cost  of 
Manu 
facture 

Manu 
facturer 

Jobber 
or 
Whole 

Re 
tailer 

Cost  of 
Trans 
porta 
tion 

Manu 
facturer 

Jobber 
or 
Whole 

Re 
tailer 

Deliv 
ered 
Price 
at  Site 

saler 

saler 

Lumber 

$1.00 

0.23 

0.33 

0.54 

0.34 

0.21 

0.09 

0.09 

2.83 

Plaster,  lath,  and 

wallboard 

1.00 

.28 



.89 

.35 

.53 

.... 

.21 

3.26 

Insulation 

1.00 

.37 

.09 

.09 

.27 

.18 

.09 

.09 

2.18 

Concrete  and 

mortar 

1.00 

.32 

.... 

.18 

.19 

.17 

.09 

1.95 

Source:  Housing  Costs;  Where  the  Housing  Dollar  Goes,  National  Housing  Bulletin  2  (Washington:  National 
Housing  Agency,  October  1944),  p.  46.  The  data  on  which  this  breakdown  is  based  were  obtained  from  un 
published  studies  of  the  Office  of  Price  Administration  and  in  general  represent  1940-1941  conditions. 

There  are  obviously  inviting  targets  here  for  any  sort  of  large  house 
building  enterprise,  and  this  is  one  point  where  the  largest  operative 
builder,  along  with  the  largest  prefabricator,  has  had  a  degree  of 
success.2  It  is  difficult  to  define  the  degree  to  which  many  prefabri- 
cators  succeeded,  because  at  the  time  of  the  survey  they  were  not  able 
to  buy  under  what  might  be  called  "normal  market  conditions."  It 
may  be  said,  however,  that  only  a  few  companies  were  able  to  effect 
really  substantial  economies  in  their  materials  purchases,  and  almost 
none  had  effected  all  those  which  they  thought  they  should  have. 
Even  so,  it  is  true  that  the  industry's  dozen  largest  members  had,  for 

2  See,  for  instance,  the  talk  by  William  Levitt  to  The  Producers'  Council,  Oc 
tober  1947,  reported  in  The  Architectural  Forum,  87  (November  1947),  10,  and 
in  Journal  of  the  American  Institute  of  Architects,  IX  (June  1948),  253-6;  and 
the  rebuttal  letter  by  H.  M.  Long  in  The  Architectural  Forum,  88  (January 
1948),  18.  See  also  the  builders'  and  manufacturers'  points  of  view  as  pre 
sented  in  testimony  before  the  Joint  Committee  on  Housing  of  the  80th  Congress, 
High  Cost  of  Housing  (Washington,  1948),  pp.  127-30. 

290 


the  most  part,  been  able  to  buy  directly  from  the  mills,  or  in  some 
cases  where  they  had  been  frustrated  in  their  attempts  to  do  so,  they 
had  begun  to  manufacture  materials  themselves,  acquiring  lumber 
mills  and  even  engaging  in  logging  operations.  Most  of  the  small 
manufacturers,  on  the  other  hand,  were  not  established  in  volume  or 
reputation  and  were  finding  it  very  difficult  to  secure  accounts  with 
direct  sources.  During  the  Veterans'  Emergency  Housing  Program 
it  was  expected  that  the  prefabricators  would  be  able  to  buy  directly 
from  the  mills,  but  after  the  program  ended  a  number  of  mills  refused 
to  sell  directly  any  longer,  with  unfortunate  results  for  some  of  the 
smaller  companies.  This  refusal  is  not  difficult  to  understand.  Under 
the  VEHP  allocation  program  of  1946-1947,  300,000,000  sq.  ft.  of  ply 
wood  was  shipped  to  prefabricators  during  a  one-year  period  at  the 
direction  of  the  government.8  The  mills  did  not  believe  that  the 
prefabricators  were  able  to  use  more  than  %  of  that  amount,4  and 
some  sources  5  put  the  figure  as  low  as  %.  By  late  1947  and  during 
the  first  half  of  1948,  the  situation  had  changed  substantially,  and 
many  prefabricators  reported  difficulty  in  securing  sufficient  plywood 
at  "reasonable"  prices. 

It  is  estimated  that  half  of  the  37,400  prefabricated  houses  pro 
duced  in  1947  were  constructed  chiefly  of  plywood.  The  industry's 
consumption  of  this  material  in  recent  years  is  shown  in  the  following 
table: 

Estimated  Consumption  of  Softwood  Plywood,  1946-1948 

(millions  of  square  feet,  %"  equivalent) 


1946 

1947 

1948 

Esti 

Per 

Esti 

Per 

Antici 

Per 

mated 

Cent 

mated 

Cent 

pated 

Cent 

Con 

of 

Con 

of 

Con 

of 

sumption 

Total 

sumption 

Total 

sumption 

Total 

Prefabricated  houses 

70 

5.4 

100 

6.3 

150 

8.3 

Other  residential  construction 

459 

35.8 

643 

40.6 

731 

40.6 

Source:  U.  S.  Department  of  Commerce,  Construction  Division,  Construction  and  Con 
struction  Materials;  Industry  Report  (April  1948),  p.  7. 

3  Source:  Douglas  Fir  Plywood  Association,  in  a  letter  to  the  Bemis  Foundation, 
August  21,  1948. 

4  Loc.  cit. 

5  Construction  and  Construction  Materials;  Industry  Report,  U.  S.  Department 
of  Commerce,  Construction  Division  (April  1948),  p.  6. 

291 


Corporate  integration  reaching  back  to  the  raw  materials  stage  was 
observed  in  quite  a  few  instances,  particularly  among  those  firms 
working  with  wood.  At  least  14  prefabricators  were  cutting  their 
own  timber  or  were  closely  affiliated  with  logging  operations,  while 
38  companies  were  known  to  have  equipment  for  various  aspects  of 
lumber  manufacture.  Two  of  the  companies  producing  houses  or 
house  components  (General  Plywood  Corporation  and  Buffelen 
Lumber  and  Manufacturing  Co.)  were  also  producing  plywood,  and 
others  were  trading  peeler  logs  cut  on  their  timber  stands  for  the 
final  plywood  product.  Other  examples  of  this  type  of  integration 
include  the  purchase  of  a  sheet-steel  mill  by  Borg- Warner  for  the  pro 
duction  of  its  Ingersoll  Utility  Unit,  and  such  tie-ups  as  that  between 
Precision-Built  and  Homasote  or  between  Lustron  and  Chicago  Vitre 
ous  Enamel.6 

Another  sort  of  integration  which  at  least  five  prefabricators  utilized 
in  the  procurement  of  materials  was  the  establishment  of  subsidiary 
wholesale  lumber  and  supply  companies,  which  made  it  possible  for 
them  to  buy  material  and  equipments  at  the  lowest  possible  prices.7 
Many  of  the  companies,  as  has  been  pointed  out  in  the  chapter  on 
management,  started  as,  or  were  backed  by,  lumber  companies  and 
so  were  able  to  enjoy  this  advantage  without  the  necessity  of  setting 
up  separate  purchasing  entities.  At  least  30  companies  were  in  this 
category.  As  might  be  expected,  some  of  these  subsidiary  purchasing 
organizations  found  it  expedient  to  sell  on  the  open  market  as  well. 
Not  only  did  they  sell  materials  which  they  had  bought  in  excess  quan 
tities,  but  they  also  served  as  outlets  for  items  such  as  doors,  windows, 
or  cabinets  which  their  parent  companies  might  have  produced  in  ex 
cess  in  conjunction  with  their  house  packages. 

This  sort  of  subsidiary  purchasing  organization  was  established 
by  Ivon  R.  Ford,  Inc.,  after  the  war  for  its  own  use,  and  that  of 
nine  licensees  in  various  parts  of  the  country,  under  the  direction 
of  Guy  C.  McKinney  in  Washington,  D.  C.  In  1947  this  purchas 
ing  subsidiary  became  an  independent  organization,  and  its  services 
were  made  available  to  the  entire  membership  of  PHMI.  Purchasing 
powers  were  pooled,  and  McKinney  &  Co.  was  able  to  arrange  with 
materials  and  equipment  producers  for  large  orders  on  a  steady  basis. 

6  Precision-Built  was  a  subsidiary  of  Homasote  Company  and  made  extensive 
use  of  its  materials.     Similarly,  the  Lustron  Corporation  was  in  its  early  days  a 
subsidiary  of  Chicago  Vitreous  Enamel  Product  Co. 

7  Texas  Housing  Co.,  California  Prefab  Corp.,  Ivon  R.  Ford,  Inc.,  Brady  Con 
struction  Co.,  and  Claude  T.  Lindsay,  Inc.    The  savings  made  by  Levitt  on  Long 
Island  through  such  a  device  have  been  well  publicized. 

292 


It  was  hoped  that  these  producers  might  become,  in  effect,  "perma 
nent  suppliers"  of  the  service,  which  would  receive  its  income  from 
a  monthly  fee  paid  by  participating  companies.  Although  such  a 
service  might  have  been  a  boon,  especially  to  smaller  operators  whose 
activities  had  been  severely  curtailed  before  participation  by  inability 
to  purchase  sufficient  materials  at  reasonable  prices  in  that  confusing 
period,  it  did  not  work  as  planned.  During  its  existence  the  service 
paid  mill  prices  or  slightly  more  for  the  materials  and  equipment  it 
bought  but,  in  most  cases,  less  than  the  wholesale  price.  Dimension 
lumber,  for  instance,  was  furnished  at  less  than  wholesale  quotations, 
and  kits  of  electrical  fixtures  were  bought  at  savings  of  35%,  40%,  and 
even  50%  over  local  wholesalers'  prices. 

In  1946  and  1947  there  was  considerable  criticism  on  the  part  of 
the  materials  producers  that  too  many  prefabricators  had  placed  orders 
based  on  huge  estimates  of  production  and  that,  when  these  estimates 
were  not  fulfilled,  cancellations  came  thick  and  fast.  Although  confi 
dence  in  the  prefabricator  is  not  the  only  condition  that  must  obtain 
before  a  materials  producer  will  be  willing  and  anxious  to  sell  direct 
to  him,  it  is  one  of  the  most  important  ones,  and  the  prefabricators 
were  anxious  to  achieve  it. 


II.  Finished  Material  and  Equipment 


Apart  from  the  structural  shell  fabricated  by  the  house  manufac 
turer  there  are  various  components  which  he  seldom  if  ever  fabricates, 
but  rather  buys  in  large  quantities  to  furnish  with  the  house  package. 
There  are  several  reasons  for  his  doing  so.  One  is  the  possibility  of 
supplying  these  items  to  the  ultimate  consumer  at  costs  lower  than 
those  the  consumer  would  have  to  pay;  generally  speaking,  such  econ 
omies  as  were  obtained  in  this  way  were  very  modest,  although  in 
several  instances  they  were  considerable.  Another  reason  is  the  ad 
vantage  gained  from  marketing  as  complete  a  package  as  possible. 
Most  of  the  advantages  accrue  directly  to  the  dealer-erector,  however, 
and  only  indirectly  to  the  prefabricator.  They  include,  for  instance, 
the  time  saved  the  dealer  in  procuring  his  materials,  and  the  elimi 
nation  of  wastage  at  the  site  through  the  use  of  the  proper  amounts 

293 


of  material.  Such  advantages  were  particularly  important  during 
the  period  of  the  survey,  which  was  one  marked  by  frequent  short 
ages  and  irregularities  in  materials  flow.  The  prefabricator  was  not 
always  in  a  position  to  help  his  dealers  in  this  way,  but  when  he  was, 
the  savings  obtained  constituted  real  economies  to  the  dealer  and 
probably  more  than  offset  the  prefabricated  storage  and  handling 
costs.  Thus  costs  were  lowered  even  if  purchasing  was  not  done  at 
particularly  advantageous  prices.8 

A  further  reason  why  the  prefabricator  may  strive,  by  acting  as  a 
jobber,  to  furnish  as  complete  a  package  as  possible  is  that  by  so  do 
ing  he  enables  his  dealer  to  make  a  larger  dollar  sale  and  thus  to  ob 
tain  a  larger  profit.  Of  course,  there  is  also  the  opportunity  for  the 
prefabricator  to  take  a  substantial  middleman's  profit,  and  many 
did  so. 

Number  of  Companies  Known  to  be  Acting  as  Jobbers  for  Various 
Finished  Components 

Regular  Part 

Item  of  Package        Optional 

Electrical  fixtures  26  6 

Flooring  58  16 

Furnaces  50  9 

Heating  stacks  25  3 

Hot-water  heaters  41  8 

Kitchen  cabinets  73  6 

Plumbing  fixtures  31  12 

Refrigerators  10  5 

Roofing  70  4 

Screens  43  12 

Stoves  13  7 

The  table  above  gives  the  number  of  companies  known  to  be  acting 
as  jobbers  for  various  finished  components.  That  there  were  not 
more  companies  furnishing  plumbing  assemblies  and  electrical  fix 
tures  was  largely  due  to  the  fact  that  prefabricators  wished  to  make 
it  possible  for  their  dealers  to  subcontract  plumbing  and  electrical 
work.  Such  equipment  is  customarily  sold  through  the  contractor 
who  installs  it,  and  most  contractors  were  understandably  reluctant 
to  install  fixtures  included  in  a  prefabricator's  package  when  in  so  do 
ing  they  would  lose  their  selling  profit.  Since  these  contractors  had 
plenty  of  regular  business,  and  since  the  prefabricator  was  often  new 

8  Note  that  savings  through  simplified  purchasing  and  elimination  of  waste 
have  also  been  the  objectives  of  the  "industry-engineered  house"  program  and 
the  proposed  program  of  the  Research  Institute  for  Economic  Housing,  New  York 
City,  Spring,  1948. 

294 


to  them,  it  was  frequently  necessary  for  the  prefabricator  to  eliminate 
certain  items  from  his  package  in  order  that  his  dealer-erectors  might 
establish  successful  working  relationships  with  the  local  contractors. 

A  second  factor  that  sometimes  entered  the  picture  was  the  refusal 
of  some  local  unions  to  handle  such  items  as  preglazed  sash  and  pre- 
hung  doors.  Few  prefabricators,  however,  mentioned  this  as  a  major 
difficulty.  Another  factor  that  affected  the  activities  of  some  prefabri 
cators  as  jobbers  was  the  choice  of  marketing  pattern.  One  firm 
which  was  planning  to  sell  through  department  stores  said  that  it 
would  have  been  able  to  furnish  refrigerators  with  its  house  packages 
at  60%  of  the  retail  price,  but  that  it  could  not  do  so  for  reasons  con 
nected  with  the  merchandising  policies  of  its  outlet. 

Considered  as  a  whole,  prefabricators  were  not  achieving  sub 
stantial  economies  by  acting  as  jobbers,  even  though  they  may  have 
bought  in  carload  lots.  Thus,  much  the  same  situation  obtained  in 
their  procurement  of  finished  materials  and  equipment  as  in  their 
procurement  of  raw  materials.  Generally  speaking,  the  "average 
prefabricator"  in  his  role  as  a  middleman  was  able  to  offer  his  dealer 
prices  which  were  the  same  as  or  only  slightly  lower  than  would  have 
been  paid  to  the  regular  distributive  outlets.  The  mere  fact  that  a 
prefabricator  might  be  classified  by  some  as  a  manufacturer  rather 
than  as  a  builder  did  not,  it  seems,  entitle  him  to  a  special  discount. 
This  was  particularly  true  after  the  Veterans'  Emergency  Housing 
Program  ended  when,  as  in  the  case  of  raw  materials,  some  producers 
of  home  equipment  refused  to  continue  selling  to  house  manufacturers 
at  factory  or  even  wholesale  prices.  One  prefabricator  who  had  been 
furnishing  along  with  his  house  a  certain  shower  unit  that  retailed 
for  $65  had,  during  the  VEHP,  been  able  to  buy  the  unit  direct  from 
the  manufacturer  for  $21,  and  supply  it  to  his  customers  for  $35,  in 
stalled.  After  the  expiration  of  the  program,  the  manufacturer  de 
clined  to  sell  the  unit  in  any  way  except  through  the  intermediary  of 
wholesale  and  retail  plumbing  houses. 

There  were  a  number  of  cases  that  differed  markedly  from  the 
"average"— cases  in  which  prefabricators  had  sufficient  volume  of  suffi 
cient  power  to  obtain  real  savings  in  their  purchasing.  One  of  the 
largest  firms  in  the  industry  stated  that  its  experience  showed  net 
savings  in  finished  materials  and  equipment  costs  of  about  35%  over 
small  conventional  builders.  Another  company  which  did  some 
what  less  business,  but  was  affiliated  with  a  very  large  materials  pro 
ducer,  reported  that  it  was  buying  its  jobbed  materials  at  industrial 
discounts  and  selling  them  to  its  dealers  at  a  15%  mark-up.  Hot-water 
heaters  which  retailed  at  $150  were  bought  by  this  company  at  $44. 

295 


An  eastern  company  stated  that  it  had  been  quoted  unit  prices  on  a 
set  of  kitchen  cabinets  of  $48  per  set.  If,  however,  it  had  ordered 
10,000  units,  the  price  would  then  have  been  only  $17  per  set.  The 
same  firm  estimated  a  saving  of  $1,000  per  house  through  such  mass 
purchasing  if  production  volume  were  raised  from  100  to  21,000 
houses  per  year.  A  study  of  the  proportion  of  the  final  cost  of  finished 
materials  and  equipment  that  is  represented  by  distribution  costs 
confirms  the  opportunities  afforded  for  savings  by  direct  purchasing: 

Cost  of  Distribution  of  Finished  Materials  and  Equipments  through 
Conventional  Channels 


Cost  of  Distribution 

Combined  Profits 

Finished 
Material 
and 
Equipment 

Cost  of 
Manu 
facture 

Manu 
facturer 

Jobber 
or 
Whole 

Re 
tailer 

Cost  of 
Trans 
porta 
tion 

Manu 
facturer 

Jobber 
or 
Whole 

Re 
tailer 

Deliv 
ered 
Price 
at  Site 

saler 

saler 

Finish  hardware 

$1.00 

0.17 

0.35 

0.48 

0.10 

0.14 

0.07 

0.14 

2.45 

Plumbing 

1.00 

.03 

.22 

.10 

.05 

.11 

1.51 

Heating 

1.00 

.10 

.17 

.07 

.10 

.06 

.08 

.02 

1.60 

Electrical 

1.00 

.18 

.85 



.13 

.13 

.10 

.13 

2.52 

Source:  Housing  Costs;  Where  the  Housing  Dollar  Goes,  p.  46. 

In  light  of  the  potentialities  for  cost  reduction  offered  by  direct 
purchasing,  one  might  well  ask  why  prefabricators  have  not  been 
generally  more  successful  in  cutting  their  finished  materials  and  equip 
ments  costs.  The  problem  involved  here  is  not  one  peculiar  to  the  pre 
fabricators.  It  confronts  the  building  industry  as  a  whole  and  is  a 
crucial  one  in  the  evolution  of  large  building  enterprises  of  any  sort, 
whether  of  operative  builders  or  of  prefabricators.  One  conclusion 
that  has  emerged  out  of  almost  every  study  of  the  building  industry 
in  the  last  decade  is  that  few  if  any  of  the  industry's  problems  cannot 
be  traced  in  some  way  to  the  small  scale  on  which  operations  are  car 
ried  out;  yet,  when  a  building  organization  begins  to  grow  to  a 
really  significant  size,  it  still  cannot  obtain  many  of  the  advantages 
and  efficiencies  which  ought  to  go  with  its  stature.  This  has  been 
the  protest  of  many  of  the  big  builders,  of  whom  Levitt  of  Long 
Island  has  been  perhaps  the  most  vocal,  and  it  has  also  been  the 
protest  of  many  a  prefabricator.  Even  though  prefabricators  buy 
materials  in  carload  lots  and  even  though  they  carry  out  most  of  the 
functions  which  normally  fall  to  the  middlemen  in  the  regular  dis 
tributive  chain— principally  stocking  and  maintaining  a  sizable  in- 

296 


ventory,  handling,  sorting,  grading— they  still  cannot,  in  most  cases, 
obtain  mill  prices.  The  reason  is  fairly  obvious.  Every  time  a  pre- 
fabricator  buys  at  the  mill,  and  at  mill  prices,  at  least  one  and  per 
haps  two  elements  in  the  distribution  channel  (the  wholesaler  or  job 
ber  and  the  retailer )  have  been  completely  by-passed.  The  mills  have 
established  stable  business  relations  with  their  distributors,  and  they 
are  naturally  not  in  a  hurry  to  upset  things  by  circumventing  them; 
the  conventional  building  industry  is  based  on  the  existence  of  these 
long  distribution  lines.  If  prefabricators  were  producing  50%  of  the 
housing  in  the  United  States  instead  of  5%,  they  would  be  so  large 
an  element  that  the  materials  producers  could  hardly  afford  to  ignore 
them.  But  until  the  industry  acquires  that  stature  and  until  the  firms 
who  produce  more  than  1,000  houses  a  year  account  for  a  major 
portion  of  the  annual  building  output,  it  is  probable  that  the  materials 
producers  will  feel  obliged  to  rely  upon  and  support  the  conventional 
distributors.  The  early  phases  in  the  development  of  big  builders  are 
therefore  likely  to  be  the  slowest.9  The  importance  of  the  large-scale 
Lustron  endeavor  is  great  if  from  no  other  point  of  view  than  this. 
As  more  big  housing  producers  emerge,  they  will  tend  to  become  an 
increasingly  significant  element  in  the  industry,  and  the  small  builder, 
to  whom  the  present  materials  distribution  scheme  is  well  suited,  may 
tend  to  become  increasingly  unimportant.  Neither  trend  was  con 
spicuous  at  the  time  of  the  survey. 


III.  Fabricated  Components 


In  a  manufacturing  operation  which  consists  largely  of  assembling 
fabricated  components  purchased  from  specialized  producers,  the 

9  The  Architectural  Forum  feels  that  this  trend  is  already  established.  In  the 
November  1947  issue,  on  page  10,  it  reports  that  its  research,  based  on  building 
permits  issued  in  1946  and  1947,  indicates  that  builders  of  10  or  more  houses  a 
year  presently  account  for  three-fourths  of  all  United  States  house  construction, 
whereas  nine  years  before  they  accounted  for  less  than  half  the  houses  built. 
However,  this  statistic  should  not  be  interpreted  without  considering  the  fact  that 
housebuilding  in  1946  and  1947  was  proceeding  at  about  twice  its  rate  in  1938; 
furthermore,  there  is  a  big  gap  between  the  builder  of  10  houses  a  year  and  the 
builder  of  1,000. 

297 


distinction  between  procurement  and  production  is  very  tenuous  in 
deed.  This  is,  however,  an  important  consideration,  for  not  only 
is  there  the  question  of  how  much  of  the  house  should  be  built  in 
a  factory  and  how  much  at  the  site,  but  there  is  also  the  problem 
of  how  much  of  the  house  should  be  produced  in  a  central  plant 
and  how  much  assembled  from  components  of  various  manufacture 
at  one  or  more  distribution  points.  The  distinction  is  between  the 
prefabricator  as  a  producer  and  the  prefabricator  as  a  synthesizer. 
In  either  case  he  may  retain  the  functions  of  design  and  integration 
and  of  distribution.  But  there  are  a  number  of  other  considerations 
which  had  led  certain  prefabricators  to  prefer  one  or  the  other  of 
these  different  types  of  operations. 

By  producing  as  much  as  possible  of  the  house  in  his  own  plant, 
the  prefabricator  will  avoid  paying  for  the  overhead  and  profit  of 
other  manufacturers;  he  probably  will  have  greater  freedom  in  de 
sign;  and  he  should  have  greater  freedom  in  the  administration  and 
control  of  his  business  operations.  On  the  other  hand,  some  of  the 
prefabricators  visited  had  several  reasons  for  freeing  themselves  of 
as  much  actual  production  work  as  possible.  For  one  thing,  many 
lacked  the  capital  to  build  the  necessary  production  facilities;  this 
was  particularly  likely  to  be  true  of  a  proponent  of  a  metal  house. 
Furthermore,  even  if  he  had  sufficient  capital,  the  prefabricator  might 
well  prefer  to  use  it  elsewhere  and  avoid  tying  himself  to  any  par 
ticular  material  or  process.  The  period  during  which  the  survey  was 
conducted  was  one  of  great  flux  and  high  technological  expectations. 
It  was  natural  that  in  such  an  atmosphere  a  number  of  companies 
avoided  heavy  investment  in  plant  and  equipment  and  replaced 
production  with  procurement  so  far  as  possible.  Even  in  more  stable 
times  highly  centralized  production  might  interfere  with  an  objec 
tive  approach  to  design  and  deter  the  company  from  adopting  new 
materials  or  structural  techniques  simply  because  these  would  not 
utilize  existing  facilities. 

Perhaps  the  most  obvious  reasons  for  purchasing  rather  than  pro 
ducing  certain  components,  however,  were  those  of  relative  imme 
diate  costs.  Component  manufacturers  might  well  achieve  sub 
stantially  lower  costs  than  a  prefabricator  making  the  same  items 
because  of  two  advantages:  specialized  high-volume  production  on  a 
steady  basis,  and  optimum  location  with  respect  to  resources.  It  is 
clear  that  some  prefabricators  did  not  have  a  large  enough  volume 
to  justify  the  purchase  of  a  complex  glue  press,  for  instance.  Fur 
thermore,  prefabricators  had  to  locate  these  plants  with  reference 
to  their  market  as  well  as  to  such  other  factors  as  raw  materials  and 

298 


labor.  The  component  manufacturer,  on  the  other  hand,  worries 
less  about  the  location  of  the  general  housing  market,  locates  near 
the  resources  he  uses,  and  thus  avoids  paying  the  transportation  cost 
for  material  that  is  lost  in  component  manufacturing.  Also,  he  main 
tains  a  steadier  production  rate  by  selling  to  a  much  broader  and 
larger  market.  The  lumber  companies  thus  did  a  great  deal  of  initial 
processing  for  prefabricators.  In  the  production  of  doors,  windows, 
and  cabinets  these  advantages  were  great  enough  to  warrant  the 
growth  of  a  large  industry  specializing  in  this  type  of  manufacture; 
other  examples  of  factory-made  components  which  were  purchased 
by  prefabricators  included  chimneys,  stairs,  and  plumbing  assemblies. 

The  decision  to  avoid  heavy  investment  in  specialized  tools  was  a 
fundamental  consideration  of  the  Harman  Corporation  in  determin 
ing  its  whole  pattern  of  operations.  Its  plant  in  Wilmington,  Del., 
served  more  as  a  warehouse  than  as  a  factory.  There  some  fabrica 
tion  was  done,  such  as  of  wood  furring  strips,  but  the  operation  was 
generally  one  of  storing  and  packaging  the  steel  frames,  panels, 
windows,  insulation,  wallboard,  and  plumbing  and  heating  equip 
ment,  all  of  which  were  being  produced  elsewhere  by  other  firms. 
In  many  respects  the  Harman  operation  was  more  like  precutting 
than  prefabricating,  but  the  example  is  illustrative  of  the  assembly 
operation.  The  HomeOla  Corporation  carried  out  a  large  share  of 
its  manufacturing  by  subcontracting  to  firms  near  sources  of  supply. 
A  large  Tacoma,  Wash.,  lumber  company  assembled  the  modular 
floor,  wall,  ceiling,  and  roof  panels  from  its  own  lumber  and  plywood 
and  shipped  these  parts  directly  to  the  dealers.  At  its  own  plant 
in  Chicago,  HomeOla  manufactured  some  of  the  plumbing  and  equip 
ment,  assembled  the  heavier  steel  items  produced  by  affiliated  firms 
in  the  area,  and  shipped  this  portion  of  the  house  package  to  the 
local  dealer  at  the  same  time  that  the  wood  portion  was  being  shipped 
from  Tacoma.  One  Oregon  prefabricator  estimated  that  it  would 
entail  about  $75,000  in  woodworking  machinery  and  about  $35,000 
in  assembly  equipment  to  tool  up  for  the  production  of  stressed  skin 
panels,  and  largely  on  the  basis  of  this  estimate  decided  to  subcon 
tract  his  panel  manufacture  to  one  or  more  established  manufacturers 
in  the  region.  On  the  opposite  side,  it  can  safely  be  said  that  the 
tight  capital  position  of  Anchorage  Homes,  Inc.,  resulting  from  the 
expenditure  of  an  estimated  one  million  dollars  for  a  new  factory, 
was  a  major  factor  in  its  failure. 

It  is  unnecessary  to  adduce  further  examples.  As  has  already  been 
pointed  out,  even  those  companies  which  fabricated  the  entire  shell 
did  not  begin  to  manufacture  everything  in  the  complete  house 

299 


package.  There  was  no  prefabricator  who  manufactured  his  own 
water  closet  or  heating  unit,  for  instance.  There  were  a  few  steps 
in  the  direction  of  corporate  integration,  and  there  seemed  to  be  an 
interest  in  housing  on  the  part  of  some  of  the  largest  steel  companies 
to  parallel  their  general  integrated  expansion  in  the  production  of 
consumer  goods.  At  the  time  of  the  survey,  however,  no  housing 
analogue  to  the  Ford  Motor  Company  had  appeared. 


300 


Part      JL  JL  • 

Chapter    S 


PRODUCTION 


I.   Plant  Facilities 


This  chapter  describes  and  analyzes  the  production  operations  of 
the  industry,  taking  into  consideration  the  physical  plant  capacity,  the 
labor  force  employed,  and  other  factors  related  to  the  amount  of  total 
output.  A  description  of  some  of  the  aspects  of  factory  production 
follows:  the  processes  and  equipment  used,  the  plant  layouts,  the 
scheduling,  etc.  Since  the  production  aspects  of  particular  kinds  of 
prefabrication  have  been  well  treated  elsewhere,1  the  chapter  de 
scribes  only  the  general  patterns  of  the  industry's  production  opera 
tions,  discussing  the  reasons  for  some  of  the  different  patterns  ob 
served.  A  brief  economic  analysis  explores  such  questions  as  the 
quantity  of  manufacturing  done  by  the  prefabricator,  the  relationship 
between  costs  and  volume,  the  increase  in  productivity  resulting  from 
prefabrication,  and  the  cost  structures  typical  of  various  groups  in  the 
industry. 

One  sign  of  the  stature  of  the  industry  is  its  growth  in  productive 
capacity.  In  early  1948  this  was  estimated  by  PHMI  as  120,000 
houses  per  year,  or  more  than  three  times  the  actual  production. 
For  the  bulk  of  the  industry,  however,  it  is  known  that  estimates 
of  physical  capacity  at  any  time  are  not  too  significant  because  the 
tooling-up  costs  are  not  high.  The  creation  of  capacity  for  the 
early  war  housing  and  for  the  30,000  houses  which  were  to  have  been 
produced  under  lend-lease  in  1945  are  examples  of  rapid  expansion 
under  stimulus.  It  should  also  be  noted  that  this  estimate  of  120,000 
excluded  many  of  those  companies  which  had  adopted  unconven 
tional  approaches  and  were  committed  to  highly  mechanized  opera 
tions  involving  large  investments  in  plant  and  equipment.  In  the 
spring  of  1948  the  National  Association  of  Housing  Manufacturers, 
representing  these  firms,  estimated  that  if  the  potential  capacity  of 
its  membership  were  realized,  it  would  exceed  the  then  existing 
capacity  of  the  rest  of  the  industry. 

The  value  of  plant  and  equipment  of  40  member  companies  sur 
veyed  by  PHMI  in  1947  was  $11,008,467,  and  the  total  assets  of 
these  companies  were  more  than  $24,000,000.  Although  this  was 

1  Particularly  in  the  Manual  on  Wood  Construction  for  Prefabricated  Houses. 
See  also  N.  S.  Perkins,  Construction  Manual  for  Douglas  Fir  Plywood  Dri-Bilt 
Houses  (Tacoma:  Douglas  Fir  Plywood  Association,  1940). 

303 


less  than  half  of  the  $60,000,000  estimated  total  capitalization  of  the 
industry,  most  of  the  balance  was  represented  by  the  giant  Lustron 
Corporation.  It  is  interesting  to  note,  by  way  of  comparison,  that 
by  June  1948  Lustron  alone  had  already  contracted  for  some  $12,- 
000,000  worth  of  plant  and  equipment,  an  investment  greater  than 
the  1947  total  of  the  40  firms  mentioned  above. 

During  the  Bemis  Foundation  survey,  the  average  size  of  plants 
larger  than  100,000  sq.  ft.,  of  which  there  were  16,  was  223,000  sq. 
ft.  This  does  not  include  the  Lustron  plant,  of  which  the  floor  area 
was  more  than  1,000,000  sq.  ft.  The  survey  also  revealed  that  29 
companies  had  completed  new  plant  facilities  since  the  war,  and  that 
at  least  22  more  were  planning  or  actually  building  new  plants. 

On  the  other  hand,  there  were  numerous  companies,  a  great 
many  of  which  were  not  visited,  which  operated  with  quite  primitive 
equipment:  a  small  shop  or  shed,  some  crude  wooden  jigs,  and  a  few 
power  saws.  Though  they  would  have  to  be  classified  as  prefabri- 
cators,  these  firms  were  probably  operating  on  a  capital  investment 
about  the  same  as  that  of  a  conventional  builder  with  the  same  out 
put. 

There  were  19  companies  which  had  more  than  one  plant  facility. 
In  most  of  these  cases,  one  or  more  of  the  plants  was  a  materials 
preparation  or  cutting  organization  near  the  source  of  supply.  Sev 
eral  eastern  firms  had  a  lumber-producing  and  precutting  plant  in 
the  South  and  an  assembly  plant  in  the  eastern  seaboard  area,  for 
example,  Johnson  Quality  Homes,  Inc. 


II.  Location  of  the  Industry 


The  map  (see  Figure  34)  shows  the  location  of  the  plants  of  82 
firms  reported  to  be  in  operation  on  January  1,  1948.  It  can  be 
seen  that  the  industry  was  well  represented  throughout  the  eastern 
half  of  the  country  and  on  the  Pacific  Coast.  Relatively  few  firms 
were  found  in  the  plains  and  mountain  areas  where  the  population 
is  widely  scattered.  The  largest  number  of  prefabricators  were  lo 
cated  on  the  Pacific  Coast  and  in  the  Midwest. 

Some  of  the  reasons  for  this  pattern  of  industrial  location  are 
immediately  obvious,  but  it  may  be  worth  while  to  explore  the  pos- 

304 


.£ 


sible  effects  of  a  number  of  factors:  access  to  raw  materials,  access 
to  markets,  access  to  labor  supply,  environmental  hostility,  and  "ac 
cident."  Regarding  the  first  of  these,  there  is  no  overall  pattern  of 
proximity  to  raw  materials.  It  is  true,  as  pointed  out  previously, 
that  there  were  19  companies  with  two  or  more  production  facilities, 
one  of  these  being,  in  most  cases,  a  raw  materials  processing  point 
near  the  source,  but  a  very  large  number  of  firms  were  located  at 
considerable  distances  from  their  respective  sources,  whether  these 
were  of  lumber,  plywood,  steel,  or  aluminum.  This  may  be  explained 
by  the  fact  that  the  prefabricated  operations  did  not,  as  a  rule, 
significantly  reduce  the  weight  of  the  materials  going  into  his  prod 
uct  (although  his  product  was  often  significantly  lighter  than  the 
conventional)  and,  in  most  cases,  did  increase  the  total  bulk.  There 
is  an  advantage,  therefore,  in  being  closer  to  the  market  than  to  raw 
materials. 

The  weight  and  bulk  of  the  house  package  make  the  transporta 
tion  problem  such  that  the  location  of  the  plant  relative  to  the  market 
was  of  primary  concern.  Although  house  packages  have  been  shipped 
as  far  as  1,000  miles  and  beyond,  the  vast  majority  were  not  trans 
ported  more  than  300  miles  for  reasons  of  cost.2  We  might  thus 
expect  that  prefabricators  were  serving  local  or  regional  markets 
rather  than  national  ones  and  that  they  were  located  close  to  where 
houses  were  being  erected;  therefore  they  would  be  generally  dis 
tributed  according  to  population  over  the  country.  In  view  of  the 
ease  of  entry  into  the  industry  and  its  fluidity  at  the  time,  we  might 
further  expect  that  they  were  concentrated  in  areas  where  the  build 
ing  activity  was  greatest,  and  to  a  large  degree  this  was  the  pattern 
observed. 

If  the  concentration  of  plants  is  compared  with  the  1946  volume 
of  new  private  construction,3  the  results  show  surprising  agreement  in 
all  but  three  regions.  The  concentration  of  prefabricators  in  the 
Pacific  Coast  area  and  in  the  middle  western  states  of  Wisconsin, 
Michigan,  Illinois,  Indiana,  and  Ohio  appreciably  exceeded  the  rela 
tive  volume  of  new  private  construction,  whereas  in  the  eastern  states 
of  New  York,  New  Jersey,  and  Pennsylvania  the  reverse  was  true. 
Tending  to  favor  prefabrication  on  the  Pacific  Coast  were  the  strong 
expectation  of  future  markets  based  upon  trends  in  population  migra 
tion,  the  rapid  rate  of  growth  of  the  metropolitan  areas  within  which 
substantially  all  the  plants  were  located,  and  the  predominantly 

2  See  Chapter  6,  Marketing. 

3  Construction  and  Construction  Materials,  Industry  Report,  Statistical  Supple 
ment,  U.  S.  Department  of  Commerce  (June  1948),  p.  6. 

306 


single-family,  open  type  of  development  which  characterized  the 
area.  The  middle  western  states  offered  a  mass  market  distributed 
in  urban  concentrations  of  various  sizes  throughout  the  population 
heart  of  the  country,  and  a  somewhat  more  receptive  environment 
than  in  most  of  the  eastern  states.  Possibly  the  Middle  West  was 
more  receptive  because  some  of  the  earliest  ventures  happened  to 
start  there  and  have  since  proved  themselves  and  demonstrated  the 
case  for  prefabrication;  for  those  companies  which  came  later,  the 
struggle  with  external  obstacles  was  progressively  easier  and  the  num 
ber  of  economic  and  other  aids  4  progressively  greater.  In  the  eastern 
states  the  expectation  of  future  growth  could  not  be  compared  with 
that  of  the  Pacific  Coast,  and  furthermore,  the  population  was  largely 
concentrated  in  a  few  highly  developed  metropolitan  areas  where  a 
smaller  proportion  of  new  private  construction  was  in  single-family 
houses.  General  consumer  resistance  to  the  idea  of  prefabrication 
in  houses  appeared  to  increase  in  the  far  eastern  states,  so  that  per 
haps  the  greatest  effort  to  conceal  the  prefabricated  nature  of  their 
houses  was  made  by  companies  which  had  plants  located  in  New 
England. 

The  consideration  of  character  of  labor  supply  did  not  seem  in 
many  cases  to  be  an  important  one  in  fixing  the  plant  location, 
although  several  companies  avoided  highly  unionized  urban  areas. 
One  reason  for  this  is  the  relatively  low  proportion  of  the  total  house 
package  cost  that  was  represented  by  direct  labor  cost.  Another  is 
the  fact  that  few  special  skills  are  needed  in  the  average  prefabrica 
tion  plant.  Neither  can  plant  location  be  explained  exclusively  as 
the  result  of  rational  calculus.  Personal  preferences  have  been  the 
determining  factor  in  more  than  one  case. 

Although  there  were  some  companies  with  two  or  more  plants, 
no  company  had  a  series  of  branch  assembly  plants.  Serious  interest, 
however,  was  expressed  by  11  manufacturers  in  the  idea  of  branch 
plants,  not  to  carry  on  the  full  range  of  operations  typical  of  a  single 
prefabrication  plant,  but  to  assemble  components  fabricated  in  one 
or  more  main  factories  and  left  unassembled  there  for  the  sake  of 
economical  shipping,  and  to  act  as  warehouses  for  house  parts  com 
prising  a  variety  of  designs.  The  principal  difficulty  was  that  an 
investment  in  a  chain  of  final  assembly  and  warehouse  facilities  in 
order  to  achieve  wider  and  more  economic  distribution  would  require 
more  capital  than  any  company  had  been  willing,  or  than  most  had 
been  able,  to  risk  thus  far. 

4  For  example,  a  concern  specializing  in  transporting  prefabricated  houses. 

307 


III.  Labor  Force 


Statistics  concerning  the  labor  force  must  be  interpreted  with  the 
seasonal  variations  of  the  industry  in  mind.  Even  after  prefabricators 
have  moved  a  considerable  portion  of  the  building  process  into  a 
factory,  they  are  not  completely  independent  of  the  weather.  The 
site  has  to  be  improved;  foundations  must  be  prepared;  and  some 
time  is  required  to  shell  in  the  house—almost  always  at  least  a  day 
and  sometimes  several  days.  As  a  consequence  of  factors  such  as 
these,  the  prefabricators  have  been  only  partially  successful  in  over 
coming  seasonal  fluctuations,  although  there  is  reason  to  believe  that 
if  dealers  are  trained  and  well  enough  capitalized  to  do  more  work 
in  advance,  and  if  the  proportion  of  site  work  decreases,  these  fluctua 
tions  will  become  smaller  and  smaller.  It  was  the  experience  of 
Gunnison  Homes,  for  instance,  that  the  active  building  season  had 
been  extended  by  one  and  one-half  months  at  each  end,  and  it  was 
this  firm's  belief  that  it  would  be  extended  further.  It  should  be 
pointed  out  in  this  connection  that  Gunnison  and  a  good  many  other 
firms  in  the  eastern  and  middle  western  states  were  attempting  to 
stabilize  their  factory  operations  by  shipping  house  packages  to 
dealers  in  the  southern  states  during  winter  months. 

If  one  bears  in  mind  the  seasonal  influence  and  the  fact  that  many 
of  the  plant  visits  were  made  during  winter  months,  some  idea  of 
the  size  of  the  labor  force  can  be  obtained.  For  the  industry  as  a 
whole,  this  was  in  the  neighborhood  of  10,000  at  the  time  of  the 
survey.5  In  those  plants  actually  in  production  when  visited,  there 
was  an  average  employment  of  79  workers.  Similarly,  the  1947 
PHMI  survey  found  a  total  of  2,810  factory  workers  employed  by  40 
companies  in  January  1947,  an  average  of  70  workers  per  company; 

5  The  labor  force  at  various  times  was  reported  as  follows: 


Number 

Total 

Date 

of  Firms 

Employment 

September  1946 

115 

10,200 

November  1946 

102 

11,630 

January  1947 

167 

10,450 

Source:  U.  S.  Department  of  Labor,  U.  S.  Employment  Service,  Labor  Market  Infor 
mation,  Industry  Series  No.  24-33,  Current  Supplements  for  October  and  December  1946 
and  February  1947. 

308 


and  the  Department  of  Labor  found  an  average  employment  figure 
ranging  from  63  to  114  at  various  times  during  1946-1947.6  It  is 
interesting,  and  perhaps  significant,  that  the  average  number  of  fac 
tory  employees  per  firm,  as  reported  by  PHMI,  went  from  70  in 
January  1947  to  83  in  July,  to  98  in  January  1948,  and  to  103  in 
July  1948.7 

Average  capacity  employment  of  300  workers  on  a  single-shift  basis 
was  indicated  by  24  companies;  some  of  the  estimates  given  may 
have  been  overoptimistic.  Only  one  company  reported  more  than 
1,000  as  its  capacity  employment  with  present  plant  facilities.  Again, 
none  of  these  figures  included  Lustron,  whose  projected  output  of 
30,000-40,000  houses  per  year  might  call  for  a  factory  labor  force  of 
4,000  spread  over  three  shifts. 


IV.  Factory  Processes  and  Equipment 


This  section  describes  the  degree  of  industrialization  found  among 
prefabricators  and  the  factory  techniques  in  use.  Because  the  mate 
rials  used  tend  to  be  the  most  important  factor  in  governing  the 
choice  of  the  actual  production  techniques  and  tools,  they  serve 
as  the  basis  of  organization  of  the  discussion. 


A.  Wood 


Wood  is  a  material  which  has  several  advantages  and  a  good 
many  disadvantages  over  other  materials  in  its  adaptability  to  indus 
trial  production.  Perhaps  its  best  quality  is  the  ease  with  which  it 
can  be  cut,  machined,  and  pieced  together.  Woodworking  machinery 
is  inexpensive,  at  least  by  comparison  with  metalworking  machinery. 
It  is  therefore  not  necessary  to  reach  such  a  high  volume  of  produc 
tion  in  order  to  put  an  investment  in  woodworking  machinery  on  an 
economic  basis.  A  further  advantage  is  that  the  production  engineer 
ing  for  most  prefabricating  in  wood  is  relatively  simple  and  does  not 

6  Loc.  cit. 

7  The  1947  figures  are  for  40  companies;  the  1948  figures,  for  50  companies, 

309 


require  the  collective  effort  of  a  staff  of  highly  trained  technicians. 
On  the  other  hand,  compared  to  steel,  wood  offers  a  few  distinct 
handicaps  to  industrial  production.  It  is,  by  nature,  not  so  homo 
geneous;  it  is  dimensionally  less  stable;  it  is  not  so  well  suited  to  such 
a  process  as  the  forced  drying  of  a  paint  coat;  and  it  cannot  so  easily 
be  shaped.  Because  of  these  qualities  the  production  man  dealing 
with  wood  finds  it  more  difficult  to  achieve  good  quality  control,  to 
obtain  close  tolerances  in  dimensions,  to  benefit  from  the  wide  variety 
of  industrial  finishes  that  have  been  developed,  and  to  use  high 
speed  material-forming  equipment.  For  these  and  other  reasons 
there  has  long  been  a  school  of  thought  which  holds  that  when  real 
housing  industrialization  does  come,  the  basic  material  used  will  not 
be  wood. 


1.  Preparation  and  Handling  of  Materials 

Many  companies  began  the  fabrication  process  with  the  manufac- 
facture  of  lumber  out  of  timber  taken  from  their  own  tracts.  There 
were  at  least  38  companies  which  owned  remanufacturing  equipment 
and  were  capable  of  creating  finished  lumber  from  large  timbers. 

Prefabricated  house  manufacture  requires  a  fair  degree  of  preci 
sion  in  order  to  make  the  prefabricated  components  fit  together 
readily  at  the  site.  When  wood  is  used  as  the  basic  material  this 
precision  is  not  always  easy  to  obtain,  and  it  becomes  important  to 
control  moisture  content  in  prefabricated  house  manufacture  where 
it  might  not  be  essential  in  conventional  house  construction.  For 
this  reason  at  least  20  companies  used  their  own  dry  kilns  to  bring 
lumber  to  the  desired  moisture  content  before  it  entered  the  fabrica 
tion  process.  A  number  of  other  companies  used  systematic  air- 
drying  operations  for  the  same  purpose.  The  bowing  out  of  plywood 
panels  is  a  possible  consequence  of  changes  in  the  moisture  content 
of  the  plywood  after  it  has  been  glued  into  a  panel,  taking  place  when 
interior  and  exterior  plies  of  the  panel  expand  or  contract  with  re 
spect  to  one  another  to  produce  a  curvature.  One  way  of  counter 
acting  this  tendency  is  to  store  plywood  in  such  a  way  that  its  sur 
faces  are  free  to  come  to  moisture  equilibrium  with  a  controlled 
environment.8  Although  plywood  was  almost  always  stored  in  an 

8  It  should  be  noted  that,  since  the  interior  and  exterior  surfaces  of  a  wall  are 
exposed  to  different  environments,  they  will  tend  to  attain  different  moisture  con 
tents  in  the  course  of  time;  consequently,  if  a  stressed  skin  panel  is  built  true  at 

310 


inside  heated  space,  only  a  few  companies  were  known  to  be 
following  the  practice  of  "sticking,"  which  involves  putting  wood 
strips  between  the  sheets  when  piling  them.  Those  that  did  had 
less  difficulty  with  panel  bowing. 

Only  a  few  companies  were  found  to  be  thoroughly  inspecting 
their  plywood,  and  indeed  there  was  no  really  good  test  for  the 
soundness  of  the  glue  lines.  However,  at  least  13  companies  were 
dipping  some  or  all  of  their  framing  members  into  a  toxic  preserva 
tive  in  order  to  protect  the  wood  from  fungi  or  harmful  insects.  In 
certain  sections  of  the  country,  of  course,  this  is  more  or  less  standard 
practice. 

The  preparation  of  other  materials  was  usually  quite  minor  in 
extent.  Insulation  and  wallboards  usually  were  purchased  ready 
to  use,  except  for  necessary  cutting.  Homasote,  however,  was  wet 
down  to  cause  it  to  expand  before  being  used  for  the  surface  of  a 
panel.  It  shrinks  on  drying,  thus  making  the  skin  of  the  panel  taut 
and  in  effect  prestressing  it. 

Only  a  few  mechanized  conveyer  lines  were  seen  in  use  to  convey 
lumber  from  storage  to  preparation  points;  this  was  being  done  by 
forked  lift  trucks  in  at  least  16  cases,  by  high-bodied  carrier  trucks 
in  at  least  six,  and  by  gravity  roller  lines  in  two,  but  mostly  by  carts  or 
by  hand. 


2.  Cutting  and  Machining 

Prefabricates  using  wood  usually  required  high-grade  lumber  and 
great  precision  in  their  cutting  and  machining  operations,  particu 
larly  in  the  manufacture  of  plywood  panels.  In  manufacturing  these 
the  framing  member  had  to  be  square  with  the  plywood  surface  in 
order  to  achieve  a  good  glue  bond.  Additional  precision  was  neces 
sary  at  the  perimeters  of  the  panels  where  very  accurate  millwork 
was  often  called  for  by  the  construction  system.  Furthermore,  fram 
ing  members  had  to  be  quite  straight,  in  order  that  they  would  fit 
into  the  jig  positioners  properly.  Thus,  in  a  good  many  plants, 
use  was  being  made  of  large,  high-speed,  precision  woodworking 
machinery  such  as  circular  saws  of  various  types,  single  and  double 

a  time  when  the  interior  and  exterior  sheets  of  plywood  have  the  same  moisture 
content,  the  panel  may  bow  later  on.  The  U.  S.  Forest  Products  Laboratory  has 
recently  been  conducting  research  to  discover  the  optimum  initial  moisture  con 
tents  for  plywood  sheets  to  be  used  in  stressed  skin  construction. 

311 


planers,  molders,  and  double-end  tenoners.  Other  tools  that  were 
sometimes  found  in  use  were  multiple  boring  machines  and  multiple 
dado  machines.  Molders,  for  instance,  which  are  rather  specialized 
machines  for  the  rapid  production  of  framing  or  other  stock  cut  to  a 
specified  pattern,  were  known  to  be  in  use  in  at  least  39  plants.  The 
design  of  plywood-cutting  machinery  showed  great  ingenuity,  some 
of  the  ideas  having  been  developed  during  the  war  when  production 
often  depended  on  the  ability  to  improvise  the  required  tools  and 
equipment.  A  few  prefabricators  were  using  automatic  cutting  ma 
chinery  designed  and  produced  for  that  purpose  by  saw  equipment 
manufacturers,  but  the  majority  of  those  who  were  doing  any  extensive 
plywood  cutting  had  devised  schemes  of  their  own,  using  such  ele 
ments  as  traveling  circular  saws  or  moving  tables.  In  many  cases  it 
was  desirable  to  give  the  plywood  extremely  accurate  edge  surfaces 
and  square  dimensions,  particularly  when  plywood  sheets  were  used 
to  make  up  the  inside  wall  and  ceiling  surfaces.  To  do  this  a  double- 
end  tenoner  was  often  used.  This  machine,  which  sizes  sheets  and 
panels  to  precise  dimensions,  grooves  panel  edges  for  splines,  cuts 
stock  to  accurate  length,  and  does  many  similar  operations,  is  one  of 
the  most  versatile  and  one  of  the  most  expensive  pieces  of  woodwork 
ing  machinery  used  by  prefabricators  in  wood.  At  the  time  of  the 
survey  double-end  tenoners  cost  about  $15,000-$20,000,  and  at  least 
14  companies  were  known  to  be  using  them.  Another  machine  used 
for  accurate  edging  was  the  equalizer,  and  improvised  machinery  for 
the  same  purpose  was  used  in  12  cases.  However,  not  all  companies 
using  plywood  as  a  surface  material  were  sizing  their  panels  or  their 
plywood  in  any  way;  some  were  content  to  rely  on  the  accuracy  of  ply 
wood  mill  fabrication  to  achieve  reasonably  good  joints. 


3.  Subassembly 

Where  panels  of  room  or  wall  size  were  being  manufactured,  it 
was  common  practice  to  subassemble  the  framing  members  for 
standard  details  such  as  door  and  window  openings  whose  location 
within  the  wall  panel  was  not  standardized.  At  least  19  of  the 
large  companies  utilized  special  jigs  and  tools  to  make  up  framing 
subassemblies  for  standard  openings,  and  thereby  simplified  assembly 
operations  when  these  were  incorporated  into  large  panels.  In 
fact,  this  manner  of  assembly  usually  made  it  possible  to  use  fewer 
jigs  in  the  manufacture  of  a  greater  variety  of  wall  panels. 

312 


This  method  was  employed  by  Precision-Built  Homes.  All  de 
sign  and  production  were  based  on  the  4"  Bemis  module.  Framing 
subassemblies  for  windows,  doors,  and  floor-wall  plates  were  made 
up  on  a  set  of  standardized  jigs.  Job-lot  orders  based  on  almost 
any  modularized  design  could  be  rapidly  manufactured  in  panels  of 
room  size  by  the  use  of  an  adjustable  "master"  jig  and  the  inter 
changeable  framing  members  and  subassemblies  which  were  already 
in  stock. 

Several  companies  were  carrying  on  an  operation  which  might  be 
termed  the  subassembly  of  plywood.  Accurately  edged  4'  X  8'  ply 
wood  sheets  were  joined  into  room-size  sheets  by  butting  them  over 
a  thin  backing  strip  of  plywood  which  presented  a  common  gluing 
surface  for  the  contiguous  sheets  atop  it.  A  strong  glue  line  without 
nails  was  achieved  through  the  use  of  a  fairly  simple  hot  plate  press 
only  a  few  inches  wide  which  was  operated  on  a  fast  cycle  over  one 
joint  at  a  time.  The  room-size  sheets  were  then  mounted  on  the 
framing  members  of  their  panels  with  good  assurance  that  joints 
would  not  open.  This  made  it  possible  to  paper  directly  over  the 
joints  without  fear  of  cracks  appearing  later. 


4.  Assembly 

Two  principal  means  of  fastening  wood  pieces  together  were  being 
used:  glue  and  nails,  frequently  both.  Hand  nailing,  of  course,  is 
hardly  an  industrialized  operation,  even  when  done  under  a  factory 
roof,  and  it  was  most  extensively  used  in  those  plants  which  pro 
duced  a  panelized,  but  otherwise  conventional,  wood  frame  house. 
There  were,  however,  numerous  attempts  to  simplify  and  speed  up 
the  operation.  A  good  many  companies  were  using  spring  devices 
which  deliver  a  staple  or  nail  into  a  sheet  of  plywood  or  wallboard 
and  into  the  framing  underneath  when  struck  on  top  with  a  sharp 
hammer  blow.  A  few  factories  used  corrugated  clips  to  assemble 
their  framing  members,  driving  these  in  from  above  as  the  lumber 
lay  in  the  jig,  instead  of  driving  nails  into  the  peripheral  edges. 
This  made  it  possible  to  run  the  panel  through  some  type  of  edging 
machine  without  the  danger  of  nails  interfering  with  the  process. 
One  pneumatic  hammer  was  seen  in  use,  and  also  one  crate-nailing 
machine,  the  latter  for  applying  subflooring  to  24'  long  panels.  Sev 
eral  other  companies  were  developing  various  sorts  of  automatic 

313 


nailing  devices  capable  of  either  a  sequence  of  operations  or  a  num 
ber  of  simultaneous  ones. 

On  the  other  hand,  a  number  of  companies  using  nails  to  obtain 
pressure  for  their  gluing  operations  expressed  the  intention  of  in 
stalling  glue  presses  to  replace  nailing  altogether.  When  nails  are 
used  instead  of  a  glue  press,  the  bond  is  seldom  so  good,  and  conse 
quently  certain  design  advantages,  such  as  the  use  of  lighter  framing, 
may  be  lost.  Other  reasons  for  installing  a  press  were  the  elimina 
tion  of  nailing  labor  and  material  costs,9  and,  if  heat  were  used, 
especially  high-frequency  induction,  a  decrease  in  the  time  required 
for  the  glue  to  set.  In  order  that  these  advantages  be  decisive,  how 
ever,  they  must  outweigh  the  cost  of  an  expensive  piece  of  equip 
ment.  Only  six  companies  were,  in  fact,  known  to  be  using  hot 
presses  for  gluing  plywood  to  framing  in  the  production  of  panels. 
Heat  was  applied  in  four  of  these  cases  by  high-frequency  induction, 
and  in  two  by  heated  platens,  one  using  steam  for  this  purpose  and 
the  other  electricity.  The  largest  hot  press  known  to  have  been  in 
actual  use  was  Prenco's,  which  had  a  32'  X  9'  bed. 

Being  the  newest  of  the  developments,  the  high-frequency  induc 
tion  technique  was  the  one  which  had  aroused  most  interest.  Its 
most  frequently  cited  advantage  over  other  types  was  the  speed 
and  accuracy  with  which  heat  could  be  concentrated  at  the  glue 
lines.  It  could  do  this  because  the  high-frequency  electric  field  is 
able  to  focus  heat  at  a  point  well  within  the  mass  in  which  it  is 
oscillating,  whereas  the  hot  platen  press  depends  on  conduction  of 
heat  inwards  from  the  contact  surfaces.  One  of  the  electronic  presses 
being  used  in  the  Midwest  was  bonding  panels  in  about  a  minute, 
whereas  the  steam-heated  press  required  a  three-minute  cycle.  Such 
a  comparison,  however,  is  not  particularly  significant,  because  the 
curing  time  depends  very  much  on  the  glue  used.  Generally,  with 
either  high-frequency  or  hot  platen  presses,  the  time  required  for 
curing  can  be  kept  to  a  few  minutes.10  A  further  device  for  speeding 
up  the  gluing  operation  was  the  use  of  a  multiple  opening  press, 
such  as  the  steam-heated  one  which  was  handling  10  panels  every  five 
minutes,  including  loading  and  unloading.  Such  a  press  cost  about 
$35,000  in  1946,  so  that  a  fairly  high  production  volume  is  necessary 
if  it  is  to  be  used  economically.  In  this  case  planned  production 
was  16  houses  per  day.  Other  presses  were  designed  for  volumes  of 
40  houses  per  day,  35-40  per  day,  five  per  day,  and  in  one  case, 

9  A  not  insignificant  reason  was  the  acute  shortage  of  nails  during  the  period  of 
the  survey. 

10  Manual  on  Wood  Construction  for  Prefabricated  Houses,  p.  179. 

314 


only  three  per  day.  In  the  last  two  cases  high-frequency  machines 
were  employed,  indicating  possibly  that  for  small,  single  opening 
presses  these  gave  greater  initial  or  operating  economy,  or  both,  than 
steam  or  electrically  heated  platen  presses.11  Rapid  curing  was 
also  effected  in  a  few  cases  by  the  use  of  heated  chambers  in  which 
glued  assemblies  were  placed  after  clamping  or  nailing.  Only  one 
company  was  known  to  be  using  a  cold  press  in  the  production  of 
plywood  panels.  This  technique,  which  saw  some  use  during  the 
war,  seems  to  have  been  too  slow,  and  to  have  been  generally  aban 
doned  in  favor  of  either  hot-press  or  glue  and  nail  techniques. 

Most  factories  were  using  hand-operated  glue  guns  to  spread  glue 
onto  framing  members,  although  a  few  used  glue-spreading  ma 
chines  which  applied  the  glue  to  both  sides  of  a  frame  assembly 
as  it  was  fed  between  a  pair  of  rollers.  When  panels  had  their 
surface  sheets  bonded  on  simultaneously  in  a  press,  the  use  of  such  a 
glue-spreading  machine  simplified  operations  considerably. 

A  distinguishing  feature  of  almost  every  factory  producing  wood 
panels  was  the  use  of  jigs.  Horizontal  assembly  jigs  determine  the 
overall  dimensions  of  panels  without  need  of  measurement,  leveling, 
or  plumbing,  and  usually  also  determine  the  locations  of  members 
or  subassemblies  within  panels.  The  simplest  jigs  were  crude  wooden 
tables  utilizing  rough  wood  blocks  to  position  the  framing  members. 
The  more  accurate  and  refined  ones  had  steel  tops  and  carefully 
machined  stops  which  provided  for  the  easy  entry  of  framing  mem 
bers,  their  precise  alignment,  and  the  quick  removal  of  the  as 
sembled  unit.  Devices  used  to  apply  pressure  to  framing  members 
in  order  to  hold  them  exactly  in  assembly  position  were  stops  acti 
vated  by  compressed  air,  cams  of  various  sorts,  wedges,  and  screw 
clamps.  In  designs  where  a  high  degree  of  precision  was  necessary, 
as  when  both  surfaces  of  a  wall  section  were  to  be  factory  applied,  it 
was  essential  that  the  dimensions  of  the  jig  be  very  accurate  and  that 
the  members  be  squarely  aligned.  This  could  best  be  assured  with 
metal-based  jigs,  since  the  wooden  ones  had  to  be  checked  regu 
larly  for  precision.  At  least  18  companies  were  known  to  be  using 
metal-based  jigs.  In  some  cases  rather  elaborate  "master"  jigs  were 
seen  in  use,  these  having  a  number  of  movable  guides  containing 
notches  or  comb-like  teeth  to  position  the  framing  members  within 
the  larger  assembly.  Such  jigs  were  used  where  wall-size  panels  or 
varied  designs  were  being  produced,  as  contrasted  with  the  use  of 

11  It  was  possible  to  rent  the  electronic  equipment  and  avoid  a  large  cash  out 
lay.  This  may  also  have  been  a  factor. 

315 


simpler  jigs  in  the  production  of  a  rather  limited  number  of  types 
of  standard  modular  panels. 


5.  Finishing 

The  great  majority  of  prefabricators  in  wood  did  not  apply  the 
final  finish  to  the  main  elements  in  the  shell  of  the  house  in  their 
factories.  Cabinets,  trim,  windows,  and  doors  were  usually  sent 
to  the  site  already  painted  or  stained,  but  the  floor,  wall,  ceiling,  and 
roof  were  in  most  cases  finished  at  the  site.  There  were  several 
reasons  for  this  practice.  As  was  pointed  out  previously,  some  manu 
facturers  left  most  of  the  actual  fabrication  of  the  floor,  ceiling,  and 
roof  to  be  done  at  the  site.  Many  companies  planned  to  disguise  the 
panelized  structure  of  their  house  by  applying  siding  or  shingles  on 
the  exterior  and  by  taping  joints,  hanging  wallpaper,  or  even  plaster 
ing  the  interior.  These  operations  were  almost  always  done  at  the 
site,  although  a  few  firms  applied  shingles  and  siding  to  panels  in 
the  shop;  therefore  final  finish  coats  were  generally  site  applied. 

In  those  cases  where  the  wall  or  floor  panels  were  completely 
fabricated  in  the  factory  and  where  nothing  but  painting  remained 
to  be  done,  it  might  seem  at  first  glance  most  economical  to  do  this 
work  in  the  shop.  A  big  reason  in  favor  of  doing  so  is  the  large  ele 
ment  of  labor  cost  in  a  site-applied  paint  job— from  two  to  five  times 
as  much  as  the  materials  cost.  However,  there  are  at  least  two  im 
portant  technical  reasons  for  not  doing  the  final  finish  job  in  the  fac 
tory.  First  is  the  danger  of  damage  to  the  finished  surface  during 
handling  and  transport  and  the  expense  of  trying  to  prevent  such 
damage.  (A  partial  solution  to  this  problem  would  be  to  apply  all 
but  the  last  coat  in  the  factory.)  The  second  reason  is  that  a  slow- 
drying  paint  job  means  either  a  low  production  rate  or  else  the  use 
of  a  large  area  in  the  factory  in  which  to  do  the  drying.  These 
problems  might  be  avoided  by  the  use  of  a  fast-drying  finish  and  a 
method  of  forced  drying.  Unfortunately,  however,  there  were  not 
available  many  fast-drying  finishes  suitable  for  exterior  woodwork, 
and  a  subsequent  site  application  of  such  finishes  for  maintenance 
purposes  would  be  most  difficult.  In  the  forced  drying  of  paint, 
the  shortcomings  of  wood  for  industrialized  production  are  again 
apparent:  the  high  temperatures  needed  to  speed  the  drying  would 
have  to  be  limited  by  considerations  of  damage  to  the  wood  through 

316 


charring  or  excessive  loss  of  moisture,  and  of  damage  to  the  paint 
film  by  the  expansion  of  air  in  the  pores  of  the  wood  beneath  the 
coating. 

Notwithstanding  all  these  difficulties,  final  finish  coats  were  being 
applied  to  both  exterior  and  interior  surfaces  in  some  factories. 
In  many  more  plants  the  woodwork  received  only  a  sealer  or  priming 
coat,  or  both,  on  either  one  or  both  surfaces.  And  in  a  number  of 
other  factories,  no  finishing  of  any  kind  was  being  done.  Where 
finishes  were  applied  in  the  factory,  the  surfaces,  usually  of  plywood, 
were  in  many  cases  first  machine  sanded  with  drum  or  belt  sanders, 
then  inspected  and  touched  up  where  necessary,  and  sent  to  spray 
booths.  A  few  plants  were  equipped  with  automatic  spray  set-ups, 
but  most  of  those  which  did  any  spraying  used  manual  equipment. 
It  was  customary  to  use  a  conveyer  line  in  conjunction  with  spraying 
and  drying  operations.  Other  means  of  applying  coatings  at  the  time 
of  our  survey  included  dipping,  especially  for  sealers  and  water  re 
pellents,  and  brushes.  Forced  drying  was  sometimes  done  with 
banks  of  infrared  lamps;  more  often,  by  warm  air. 


6.  Quality  Control 

One  aspect  of  factory  production  which  should  not  be  overlooked 
is  inspection  for  quality  control.  Not  only  is  this  more  readily  done 
in  a  factory  than  in  the  field,  but  it  is  also  more  essential  to  con 
tinued  business  success  for  a  prefabricator  than  for  the  average 
conventional  builder.  Because  of  the  infrequency  with  which  houses 
are  bought,  and  because  of  the  short-term  interest  of  the  average 
builder  and  contractor  in  their  product,  the  great  bulk  of  home- 
building  has  traditionally  been  carried  on  without  the  use  of  brand 
names,  quality  guarantees,  advertising,  or  servicing.  Along  with 
the  evolution  of  large  operative  builders  and  prefabricators  there 
has  been  a  corresponding  increase  in  the  importance  of  establishing 
a  name  and  maintaining  a  reputation.  Quality  control  is  an  essen 
tial  element  in  this  process,  and  without  it  even  the  most  extensive 
advertising  efforts  may  fail.  Systematic  attempts  at  some  sort  of 
quality  control  were  observed  in  almost  every  plant,  and  in  a  few 
these  were  quite  elaborate,  ranging  from  the  inspection  of  raw  mate 
rials  through  manufacturing  inspection  of  dimensions,  glue  joints, 
and  machined  surfaces  to  the  final  inspection  of  finishes. 

317 


B.  Metal 


Probably  the  best  testimony  to  the  admirable  suitability  of  metal 
for  industrial  production  is  its  widespread  industrial  use.  The  rea 
sons  are  not  obscure:  metal  is  abundant;  it  can  be  made  homogeneous 
to  a  high  degree;  its  physical  properties  can  be  intentionally  altered 
over  a  wide  range;  it  has  good  dimensional  stability;  it  can  easily 
be  formed  by  casting,  forging,  extruding,  stamping,  or  bending;  it 
can  be  welded,  soldered,  brazed,  riveted,  or  bolted  together;  and  it 
can  be  made  to  take  a  vast  variety  of  finishes— vitreous  enamel,  paint, 
lacquer,  plating,  and  many  others.  Metal  can  be  fabricated  in  a 
great  variety  of  ways  at  high  speed  and  with  excellent  precision.  Its 
prime  disadvantage  from  the  standpoint  of  production  engineering 
is  that  metal-working  machinery  is  generally  expensive  and  often  re 
quires  a  skilled  engineering  force  for  its  proper  set-up,  control,  and 
maintenance.  Ordinarily  plant  fabrication  of  metal  structures  re 
quires  a  larger  plant  investment  than  for  wooden  structures,  and 
production  volumes  must  be  accordingly  higher  before  economies 
are  apparent. 

The  production  of  metal  houses  is  described  in  less  detail  than  that 
of  wood  houses  chiefly  because  there  were  many  fewer  firms  pro 
ducing  them,  and  there  was  but  little  evidence  of  a  general  pattern  of 
factory  operations.  One  other  general  remark  is  pertinent:  most  of 
the  metal  house  packages  do  not  leave  the  factory  in  the  form  of 
wall,  roof,  and  floor  panels  as  do  wood  houses.  Only  two  firms 
were  known  to  be  shipping  fully  assembled  wall  panels.  Most  of 
the  packages  consisted  essentially  of  separate  frames  and  cladding, 
the  houses  being  primarily  of  frame  assembly  design. 


1.  Material  Forming 

Practically  all  the  metal  systems  known  to  have  been  in  production 
utilized  some  sort  of  sheet  steel  or  aluminum  as  the  primary  material, 
both  for  framing  members  and  for  claddings.  Even  the  most  com 
plete  production  systems  began  with  the  purchase  of  rolled  sheet 
metal.  Flat  sheets  were  punched  and  sheared  as  required,  and  then 
sent  into  forming  operations.  The  Byrne  Organization  and  Harman 
Corporation  bought  structural  shapes  already  fabricated  by  other 
companies;  and  load-bearing  wall  pans  were  being  bought  by  Metal 

318 


Homes  Company  and  The  Steelcraft  Manufacturing  Company  from 
the  American  Rolling  Mills  Company. 

In  the  prefabricators'  plants,  materials  were  made  into  structural 
members,  wall  pans,  and  claddings  of  various  sorts  by  the  means 
conventionally  used  for  cold-forming  sheet  metal— roll  corrugating, 
press  breaking,  die  rolling,  die  pressing,  etc.  Such  operations  gen 
erally  involve  high  tool  costs  and  must,  therefore,  be  undertaken 
at  a  high  production  rate  if  unit  costs  are  to  be  kept  low.  Lustron, 
for  instance,  had  installed  about  100  pieces  of  press  equipment  which 
cost  roughly  $3,000,000,  but  it  predicated  this  investment  on  an  an 
nual  production  of  as  many  as  40,000  houses.  Since  there  are  many 
repetitive  elements  in  the  design  of  this  house,  some  of  these  presses 
were  to  be  working  at  very  high  volume  (see  Figure  41). 


2.  Assembly 

In  addition  to  their  forming  processes,  some  plants  carried  on  as 
sembly  operations,  but  these  were  usually  of  a  minor  and  simple 
nature.  Fox  Metal,  for  example,  bolted  together  channels  to  form 
I  sections,  and  then  attached  connector  angles  to  these.  Stran-Steel 
spot-welded  sections  together  to  form  rib  sections.  General  Homes, 
which  was  one  company  that  planned  to  make  a  complete  wall 
panel,  bonded  an  aluminum  skin  to  fiberboard  sheathing  and  then 
fastened  this  to  a  corrugated  aluminum  core.  Lustron  gang-welded 
its  structural  shapes  into  roof  trusses  and  panelized  frames,  and 
assembled  most  of  the  elements  for  its  bay  window  unit  in  the  plant. 
An  exception  to  these  essentially  minor  assembly  operations  was  the 
plan  of  Reliance  Homes,  Inc.  (see  Figure  42).  Its  scheme  called 
for  assembly  in  the  plant  of  complete  house  sections.  Plant  opera 
tions  included  welding  a  basket  frame  of  steel  C  channels,  fastening 
to  it  the  interior  surface  of  Homasote  and  exterior  surface  of  alumi 
num  bonded  to  Homasote,  and  installing  and  finishing  the  floor  and 
mechanical  equipment.  Such  a  pattern  is  comparable  in  many  ways 
to  that  used  in  the  production  of  the  British  AIROH  house,  and 
together  these  two  offer  the  best  examples  of  the  sectional  house 
worked  out  in  metal. 


319 


3.  Finish 

Components  of  metal  houses  generally  received  at  least  a  priming 
coat  in  the  factory,  and  often  were  completely  finished  there.  With 
steel,  rust  prevention  is  of  course  a  major  problem,  and  consequently 
parts  were  primed  with  zinc  chromate  or  some  other  paint  as  soon 
as  possible.  The  Harman  house  was  of  steel  construction  to  which 
only  the  zinc  chromate  priming  coat  was  factory  applied.  Subse 
quent  coats  of  oil  paint  were  sprayed  on  in  the  field,  along  with 
mineral  granules  to  give  a  stucco-like  texture  and  somewhat  improved 
performance. 

Complete  factory  finishing  was  more  common  than  with  wood 
houses  since  the  use  of  metals  permitted  accelerated  drying  and 
baking  of  very  hard  finishes.  The  Lustron  house  was  one  of  the  best 
examples  of  a  completely  factory-finished  job,  and  it  depended 
heavily  on  the  toughness  of  its  porcelain  enamel  finish  to  prevent 
damage  to  the  surface  during  handling,  transport,  and  erection.  The 
permanence  of  porcelain  enamel  is  perhaps  its  greatest  advantage,  but 
its  application  is  confined  to  a  factory  where  the  necessary  pulverizers, 
dipping  tanks,  conveyer  lines,  and  large  gas  or  electrically  heated 
ovens  can  be  located. 

The  Lustron  porcelain  enamel  process  was  one  of  the  important 
influences  in  the  development  of  the  Lustron  Corporation.  During 
the  war,  a  method  was  developed  for  the  low-temperature  firing  of 
porcelain  enamel.  This  was  a  "one-coat  one-fire"  process  which 
eliminated  the  base-coat  operation.  The  process  also  permitted  the 
use  of  ordinary  steel  backing  rather  than  the  more  expensive  enamel 
ing  iron,  since  the  lower  temperature  eliminated  objectionable  warp 
ing  that  would  result  from  conventional  enameling  of  ordinary  steel. 

Structural  members  for  the  Lustron  house  were  cold  formed  in  the 
plant  from  strip  steel.  These  shapes  were  welded  into  wall  panels 
and  roof  trusses,  and  each  assembly  was  given  a  protective  coat  of 
enamel.  The  2'  by  2'  exterior  wall  panels  were  stamped  from  light- 
gauge  cold-rolled  strip  steel,  enameled,  and  insulated  with  Fiber glas. 
All  surfaces  exposed  to  weathering  action  were  given  a  special  coat  of 
finish  enamel  in  addition  to  the  basic  layer.  The  wall  panels  were 
interlocking,  and  the  joints  between  panels  were  sealed  with  a  Koro- 
seal  gasket.  In  erection,  the  wall  frame  sections  and  roof  trusses  were 
bolted  together  and  then  the  cladding  panels  applied. 


320 


35    Ford  house 


36    Butler  house 


in 


37     LeTourneau  system 


basic  carrier  of  the  Tournalayer 
detail  of  inner  form  ready  for  pouring 
outer  form  lowered  over  inner  form 
concrete  pouring  gun 
pouring  the  concrete  into  forms 
dropping  the  completed  house  at  its  site 
finished  LeTourneau  houses 


^* 


1    placing  wall  forms  on  floor  slab 


38     Ibec  system 


pouring  concrete  into  wall  forms 


3     lifting  wall  forms  from  walls 


***>*, 


4     constructing  roof  slabs  in  stack 


5  placing  roof  slab  on  Ibec  house 

6  completed  house— Norfolk  project 


39     Gunnison  plant  operations 


cutting  plywood 
cutting  framing  members 


3  assembling  panels  for  Gunnison  house 

4  trimming  panels 


5     bonding  panels  in  multiple  press 


6     finishing  Gunnison  panels 


40     National  Homes  plant  operations 

basic  wall  panel  line,  showing  from  front  to 
back:  assembly  of  framing  members  in  jig, 
spreading  glue  on  framing  members,  place 
ment  and  stapling  of  interior  wallboard,  ap 
plication  of  insulation,  placement  and  nailing 
of  plywood  exterior  surface,  insertion  of  win 
dows  and  doors,  and,  finally,  the  completed 
panel 

2  floor  panel  line 

3  roof  panel  line 

4  gable-end  panel  line 

5  special  16'  double  end  tenoner 


41      Lustron  plant  operations 


1     fully  automatic  exterior  wall  panel  press 


*  tf 


2     grinding  the  frit 


4     rolling  Lustron  frame  members 


3     mixing  the  enamel 


5     baking  enamel  on  Lustron  roof  panels 


6     welding  watt  frame  assemblies 


7     loading  wall  panels  on  special  trailer  (note  the  extent  of  manual  labor 
involved) 


8     loading  frame  assemblies    (here  plumbing   watt  panel)   on  special 
trailer 


"•TT 


n: 


assembling 

the 

frame 


2 

applying 

the 

aluminum 

surface 


42    Reliance  plant  operations 


3 

finishing 

the 

complete 

house 

sections 


43     Crawford   Corporation— example   of  specialized  woodworking   machiner 
used  by  large  prefabricators  for  multiple  cutting 


44     Texas  Housing  Co. 


Homette 


standard  house 


C.  Concrete 


1.  General  Qualities  for  Production 

The  theoretical  advantage  of  concrete  from  the  production  point  of 
view  is  one  which  exists  for  casting  processes  in  general:  ease  of 
forming  to  the  desired  shape.  Because  of  the  inherent  simplicity  of 
casting,  inventors  have  always  hoped  to  develop  materials  or  ma 
chinery  which,  using  this  fundamental  technique,  would  produce  a 
really  economical  house.  If  such  a  house  is  to  be  built  out  of  pre 
cast  concrete  units,  however,  the  handicaps  of  long  curing  time, 
frangibility,  and  weight  must  be  overcome. 


2.  Preparation  and  Handling  of  Materials 

The  factory  production  of  precast  concrete  units  observed  during 
the  survey  was  characterized  by  the  extensive  mechanization  of  proc 
esses  which  were  generally  done  by  cruder  methods  in  the  field. 
The  bulky  materials  used  were  handled  primarily  by  mechanical 
batching  equipment  fed  from  rail-side  hoppers  or  other  types  of  load 
ing  machinery.  Materials  were  mixed  in  various  types  of  stationary 
mixers.  Since  the  use  of  a  lower  water/cement  ratio  results  in  a 
higher  strength,  it  was  not  uncommon  for  factory  producers  to  mix 
for  longer  periods  than  would  usually  be  encountered  in  field  prac 
tice  and  to  use  less  water,  relying  on  mechanical  equipment  and 
better-controlled  factory  conditions  to  vibrate  thoroughly  and  to 
handle  a  stiff  mix  with  ease.  Another  preparatory  operation  handled 
in  the  plant,  and  an  important  subassembly  process  in  some  instances, 
was  the  cutting  and  assembling  of  the  reinforcing  mat.  Further,  the 
use  of  special  mix  concretes,  foaming  or  air-entraining  agents,  aggre 
gates,  or  methods  of  mixing  is  ordinarily  more  feasible  in  the  plant 
than  at  the  site. 


3.  Casting 

From  the  mixer  the  concrete  was  poured  into  forms,  which  were 
usually  of  steel.     Some  sort  of  vibrating  table  was  generally  placed 

321 


beneath  the  steel  form  in  order,  by  vibrating  the  concrete,  to  achieve 
more  uniform  densities  and  more  precise  dimensions.  To  put  a 
troweled  surface  on  the  top  side  of  the  casting,  some  type  of  machine 
was  used  in  almost  every  case. 


4.  Curing 

In  order  to  speed  up  the  production  cycle  three  methods  for  attain 
ing  early  strength  were  seen  in  practice.  Simplest,  perhaps,  was  the 
use  of  high  early  strength  cement,  a  material  which  becomes  strong 
enough  to  withstand  quite  severe  treatment  in  about  one-fifth  the 
time  required  by  ordinary  Portland  cement.  A  second  method  was 
to  pass  the  casting  through  a  bath  of  steam  under  pressure.  In  the 
manufacture  of  the  Pfeifer  concrete  units,  for  example,  slabs  were 
cured  in  a  36'  long  autoclave  while  still  in  their  steel  molds.  A  12- 
hour  exposure  to  steam  at  40  Ib.  per  sq.  in.  accelerated  the  curing 
sufficiently  to  permit  use  of  the  molds  on  a  one-day  production  cycle. 

The  third  method,  the  Vacuum  Concrete  process,  was  based  on  the 
utilization  of  atmospheric  pressure  and  was  significant  not  only  be 
cause  of  its  high  early  strength,  but  also  because  it  was  helpful  in 
dealing  with  several  other  problems  of  precast  concrete  construction. 
Until  quite  recently  Vacuum  Concrete  had  been  used  almost  exclu 
sively  for  heavy  cast-in-place  construction.  At  the  time  of  the 
survey,  however,  it  had  been  used  for  housing  of  precast  panel  con 
struction,  primarily  in  projects  of  100  or  more  dwellings.  Casting  was 
usually  carried  out  on  or  near  the  site,  and  although  the  necessary 
equipment  could  be  installed  in  a  plant  under  cover,  it  was  funda 
mentally  the  same  in  all  cases.  The  casting  bed  was  of  smooth  con 
crete,  so  equipped  that  air  could  be  exhausted  from  a  number  of 
grooves  in  its  surface.  When  vertical  side  forms  were  placed  over 
these  grooves  and  the  suction  turned  on,  atmospheric  pressure  held 
the  forms  firmly  in  position.  Hence  they  could  be  set  and  broken 
away  simply  by  opening  or  closing  air  valve  connections  to  the  large 
vacuum  pump  that  was  the  heart  of  the  system.  (Similarly,  in  the 
field,  joints  between  precast  panels  were  formed  with  the  aid  of  flat 
or  corner-shaped  vacuum  molds  held  in  place  by  atmospheric  pres 
sure. )  After  the  forms  were  in  place  the  concrete  was  poured  into 
the  mold  and  was  vibrated  with  a  portable  vibrator.  Then  one  or 
more  vacuum  mats  were  placed  on  the  surface  of  the  concrete,  the 
suction  turned  on,  and  water  removed  for  12-25  minutes.  By  lower- 

322 


ing  the  water/cement  ratio  in  this  way  an  unusually  high  early 
strength  was  achieved  and  walls  cast  late  in  the  afternoon  could  be 
lifted  into  place  the  following  morning.  At  the  surface  of  the  panel 
the  pressure  of  the  vacuum  mat  and  the  extraction  of  much  of  the 
water  served  to  produce  a  particularly  strong  and  dense  concrete, 
thereby  increasing  the  resistance  to  moisture  penetration.  After  the 
mats  were  removed,  the  surface  was  troweled  off  to  a  smooth  finish. 

The  same  basic  techniques  were  used  for  the  floors,  roofs,  and 
partitions.  In  some  cases  walls  were  cast  in  a  sandwich  manner: 
2%"  of  aerated  concrete  would  be  poured  first  and  allowed  to  con 
solidate;  an  equal  thickness  of  ordinary  concrete  would  then  be 
poured  and  a  slight  amount  of  reinforcing  embedded  in  this;  finally, 
the  top  surface  would  be  troweled  with  either  a  pigment  or  a  %" 
layer  of  white  cement  grout  to  form  an  exterior  finish.  Such  a  5"  wall 
had  ample  strength  and  good  insulation  properties. 

The  large  slabs  were  lifted  from  the  casting  bed  by  means  of 
vacuum  lifting  mats  which  supported  the  weight  of  the  slabs  over 
their  entire  surface  and  minimized  any  concentration  of  stress  such  as 
would  occur  with  ordinary  sling  lifting  methods.  The  mats  were 
used  in  conjunction  with  crane  equipment  in  much  the  same  way 
that  an  electromagnet  is  used  to  lift  steel. 

In  precast  systems  in  general,  while  it  is  true  that  special  methods 
were  seen  in  use  for  breaking  slabs  out  of  their  molds  as  soon  as 
possible  after  casting,  it  was  nonetheless  usually  impossible  to  utilize 
these  slabs  in  construction  right  away;  sufficient  time  had  to  be  al 
lowed  for  them  to  gain  the  strength  required  in  handling  and  trans 
portation  and  in  carrying  the  designed  loads  in  the  structure.  Hence, 
a  good  deal  of  storage  space  in  which  the  precast  units  could  rest 
while  aging  was  generally  required. 


5.  Tournalayer 

Another  type  of  concrete  construction  utilized  the  Tournalayer,  a 
huge  machine  developed  in  1946  by  R.  G.  LeTourneau.  The  Tourna 
layer  was  used  first  as  an  outer  form  in  pouring  a  monolithic  concrete 
house,  and  subsequently  as  a  means  of  carrying  the  house  to  its  final 
site.  If  prefabrication  is  defined  in  its  broadest  sense  as  involving 
the  transfer  to  an  off-site  factory  of  a  part  of  the  construction  process, 
the  Tournalayer  falls  under  this  classification,  since  the  work  of  fabri- 

323 


eating  and  placing  the  forms  has  been  almost  completely  moved  away 
from  the  site. 

Because  of  the  capital  cost  of  the  equipment  involved  and  the  ex 
pense  of  transporting  it  over  long  distances,  the  Tournalayer  has  been 
used  only  in  large  projects.  In  such  projects  a  central  operating  site 
was  selected  at  the  same  time  as  the  housing  area.  Here  the  steel 
inner  form,  consisting  of  two  chambered  shells,  was  located.  Pre 
fabricated  reinforcing  steel,  window  and  door  bucks,  electrical  boxes 
and  conduits,  and  separators  for  wall  endings  were  placed  against 
this  inner  form,  and  the  four-sided  outer  form  carried  by  the  Tourna 
layer  was  then  lowered  around  the  prepared  core,  usually  leaving  a 
space  of  5"  for  the  casting  of  walls  and  roof.  The  assembly  was  then 
ready  for  the  concrete  pour.  If  a  high  early  strength  concrete  was 
used,  the  house  could  be  removed  from  the  mold  within  16  hours. 
While  still  enclosed  in  the  outside  form  the  house  was  released  from 
the  core  by  a  lever  mechanism  which  pulled  in  the  sides  of  the  core 
about  2"  all  around.  Outer  form  and  house  then  were  raised  over  the 
top  of  the  core  by  the  Tournalayer  and  carried  off.  At  the  near-by 
site,  slightly  excavated  to  receive  the  bottom  edge  of  the  wall  slab 
(which  had  been  tapered  outwards  to  serve  as  a  foundation  wall), 
the  Tournalayer  lowered  the  house  into  its  permanent  position.  The 
outer  form  was  then  expanded,  raised,  and  carried  back  to  the  casting 
site  by  the  Tournalayer,  leaving  the  house  ready  for  finishing  details. 
The  typical  house  produced  by  the  Tournalayer  used  45  tons  of  con 
crete  and  one  ton  of  reinforced  steel.  Special  concrete  mixing  and 
pouring  machinery  was  used  at  the  casting  site,  and  special  cranes 
assembled  the  interior  forms.  For  obvious  reasons,  this  equipment 
has  usually  been  rented,  and  not  sold,  by  LeTourneau. 

A  number  of  projects  have  been  built  in  the  Southwest  using  the 
methods  described  above.  In  such  a  climate,  it  is  not  necessary  to 
take  many  measures  to  improve  the  insulating  properties  of  concrete, 
and  for  this  reason,  as  well  as  the  very  important  one  that  the  Tourna 
layer  requires  a  minimum  of  skilled  on-site  labor,  it  has  been  of  con 
siderable  interest  to  builders  in  such  parts  of  the  world  as  South 
America  and  the  Middle  East.  It  has  aroused  interest  also  because 
of  the  surprising  fact  that  it  offers  a  good  deal  of  diversity,  being 
able  to  make  very  different  structures  by  simple  rearrangement  of  the 
forms,  and  even  to  cast  two-story  structures. 


324 


D.  Honeycomb  Core  Sandwich  Materials 

Perhaps  the  most  promising  aspect  of  the  various  honeycomb  core 
sandwich  materials  12  is  that,  through  their  use,  prefabrication  of  the 
house  shell  becomes  very  largely  the  production  of  one  particular  ma 
terial.  Designs  embracing  these  new  materials  utilize  the  stressed 
skin  principle  so  extensively  that  there  is  a  bare  minimum  of  frame 
assembly  work  to  be  done,  either  in  factory  or  in  field.  There  are  still 
such  problems  as  window  and  door  openings,  and  joints  between 
panels  and  at  the  floor  and  roof,  but  with  the  exception  of  a  few  sys 
tems  of  concrete  construction,  most  of  which  involved  but  little  pre 
fabrication,  the  development  of  the  sandwich  materials  represented  the 
most  direct  attempt  to  change  the  building  of  the  shell  from  a  bits  and 
pieces  assembly  job  to  an  automatic  continuous  material  manufactur 
ing  process.  Such  processes  had  already  been  developed  for  certain 
building  products  such  as  sheet  metals  and  wallboards,  but  the  manu 
facture  by  similar  methods  of  a  composite  material  that  would  serve 
at  once  as  structure,  insulation,  enclosure,  and  finish  still  waits  to  be 
achieved.  The  honeycomb  core  materials  were  not  the  only  ones 
using  the  sandwich  principle.  Cemesto,  for  instance,  is  a  mass-pro 
duced  composite  material  consisting  of  a  cane  fiber  insulation  board 
surfaced  on  both  sides  with  a  %"  cement  asbestos  sheet,  and  combines 
good  insulation  and  surface  qualities.  It  has  been  used  only  as  a 
curtain  wall,  however,  not  as  a  bearing  wall.  A  related  line  of  de 
velopment  has  been  pursued  for  a  number  of  years  by  William  B. 
Stout. 

Of  the  various  types  of  core  materials,  plastic-impregnated  paper 
has  thus  far  received  the  most  attention.13  It  is  possible  that  such 
paper  cores  may  eventually  be  manufactured  as  separate  materials  to 
which  can  be  bonded  surfacings  of  metal,  plywood,  paper-overlaid 
veneer,  or  other  types  of  laminates  having  the  properties  required 
for  stressed  skin  panels.  At  the  time  of  the  survey  there  had  been  no 
mass  production  of  these  cores  for  use  in  housing,  although  processes 
had  been  developed  for  similar  materials  in  other  uses,  floors  in  air 
craft,  for  instance.  A  good  deal  of  development  work  had  been 

12  See  "Physical  Properties  and  Fabrication  Details  of  Experimental  Honey 
comb-Core  Sandwich  House  Panels,"  HHFA  Technical  Paper,  no.  7  (February 
1948). 

13  Other  materials  which  have  been  tried  include  plastic-impregnated  fabrics, 
foamed  slag,  foamed  rubber,  and  glass. 

525 


done,  however,  and  one  factory  was  reported  to  be  fully  equipped  for 
the  production  of  house  panels  of  this  material.14 

Because  it  has  not  yet  been  worth  while  for  the  paper  manu 
facturers  to  produce  a  plastic-impregnated  paper  especially  for  the 
purpose,  the  production  of  the  core  on  a  small  scale,  for  development 
work,  began  by  treating  a  kraft  paper  with  a  phenolic  resin  solution. 
The  purpose  of  this  treatment  was  to  enable  the  paper  to  retain  its 
strength  when  exposed  to  moisture  and  to  resist  attack  by  decay  or 
fungi. 

Fabrication  of  the  core  from  the  resin-impregnated  paper  then 
could  proceed  by  several  different  methods  and  could  result  in  a 
number  of  different  types  of  core.  One  of  the  simplest  processes  be 
gan  by  passing  the  paper,  which  was  received  from  the  mill  in  rolls, 
through  a  corrugating  machine  and  then  through  an  oven  to  cure  the 
resin.  After  this  the  paper  was  cut  into  squares,  or  strips,  and 
passed  through  a  glue  spreader  which  applied  glue  to  the  nodes  of  the 
corrugations.  The  sheets  were  then  stacked  in  either  of  two  ways: 
with  the  flutes  of  adjacent  sheets  at  right  angles  to  one  another  or 
with  the  flutes  of  adjacent  sheets  parallel  and  the  nodes  of  adjacent 
sheets  in  contact  with  each  other,  depending  on  the  balance  desired 
between  insulation  and  strength.  The  stacks  were  then  put  into  a 
press,  after  which  they  were  sliced  into  portions  of  the  proper  thick 
ness  for  a  panel  core. 

Another  method  for  making  the  core  omitted  the  corrugating  opera 
tion.  Sheets  of  plastic-impregnated  and  cured  paper  were  striped 
with  glue  lines  spaced  at  about  %"  and  were  stacked  and  pressed 
together  with  the  glue  lines  of  adjacent  sheets  parallel  to  each  other 
and  staggered.  After  the  glue  had  dried,  the  stack  was  simply  ex 
panded  in  the  manner  of  a  Christmas  bell,  and  it  was  then  ready  to 
have  surface  skins  bonded  to  it.  There  had  also  been  some  develop 
ment  work  on  automatic  core-making  machinery,  but  none  of  the 
methods  in  use  at  the  time  of  the  survey  could  produce  in  continu 
ous  strip. 

14  The  following  are  known  to  have  been  interested  at  one  time  or  another  in 
honeycomb  core  sandwich  materials: 

( 1 )  Acorn   Houses,   Inc.  ( 6 )  Kimberly-Clark  Corp. 

(2)  Consolidated   Water   Power  and           (7)  John  D.  Lincoln  Furniture  Co. 
Paper  Co.  (8)  St.  Regis  Paper  Co. 

(3)  Chrysler  Corp.  (9)  Southern  California  Homes,  Inc. 

(4)  Consolidated  Vultee  Aircraft  Cor-       (10)  United  States  Plywood  Corp. 
poration  (11)  Utley-Lincoln  System,  Inc. 

(5)  Forest  Products  Laboratory 

326 


The  first  method  described  was  considered  by  many  to  be  slightly 
preferable  from  the  viewpoint  of  production,  because  of  its  relative 
simplicity  and  of  the  avoidance  of  any  heavy  investment  in  machinery. 
It  also  afforded  somewhat  better  insulative  value. 

Two  types  of  equipment,  roll  and  press,  were  used  for  bonding  the 
skin  to  the  core,  both  of  which  were  still  being  developed.  The 
Chrysler  Cycleweld  process  utilized  rolls  and  high-frequency  induc 
tion  heating  to  produce  a  quick  bond  between  core  and  skin,  both 
of  which  were  preheated  on  their  way  to  the  machine.  Should  the 
skin  material  come  in  continuous  sheet  form  and  should  some  method 
be  devised  for  making  up  cores  continuously  or  as  a  continuous  chain 
of  blocks,  this  process  offered  the  possibility  of  the  automatically 
controlled  manufacture  of  a  standardized  product— walls,  floors,  and 
roofs  "by  the  mile."  On  the  other  hand,  the  use  of  a  large  hot  press 
seemed  somewhat  more  compatible  with  the  production  of  panels 
having  various  openings,  edge  fittings,  and  other  specialized  features 
such  as  would  be  necessary  at  least  in  the  production  of  walls.  The 
firm  which  had  most  closely  approached  commercial  production  of 
houses  made  from  this  material  was  set  up  to  use  such  a  large  hot 
platen  press. 


V.  Some  Particular  Aspects  of  Production 


Prefabrication  plants  had  several  characteristics  in  common,  re 
gardless  of  the  materials  with  which  they  were  working,  and  these 
are  described  briefly  in  the  following  section. 


A .  Factory  Storage  Facilities 

One  of  the  comments  most  frequently  made  by  executives  was  that 
if  they  had  another  plant  to  design  they  would  certainly  increase  the 
amount  of  space  devoted  to  storage.  At  the  time  of  the  survey  there 
were  at  least  two  important  factors  contributing  to  the  inadequacy  of 
storage  facilities  for  raw  materials.  First,  the  building  situation  was 

327 


characterized  by  shortages,  difficulties  in  procurement,  and  delays  in 
shipping.  This  often  made  it  necessary  for  factories  to  carry  unbal 
anced  inventories  and  to  take  materials  as  they  could  get  them.  Sec 
ondly,  production  was  seldom  stable  for  a  variety  of  reasons— inability 
to  obtain  one  or  two  items  needed  for  the  package,  seasonal  fluctua 
tions  which  the  distribution  system  had  not  been  able  to  iron  out, 
and,  most  important,  the  failure  of  the  marketing  arrangements  to 
provide  a  steady  flow  of  orders.  In  short,  the  materials-in-transit 
concept  of  mass  production  had  not  been  realized  except  by  a  very 
few  companies. 

Storage  space  for  manufactured  goods  was  required  for  two  prin 
cipal  reasons,  to  permit  a  relatively  constant  production  volume  with 
a  fluctuating  rate  of  sales  and  to  allow  time  for  certain  curing  processes. 
In  the  manufacture  of  plywood  panels,  for  instance,  recommended 
practice  was  to  allow  a  period  of  at  least  a  few  days  in  which  the 
glue  could  attain  full  strength  and  in  which  the  water  added  to  the 
wood  by  the  glue  could  be  distributed  uniformly.  Precast  concrete 
units  also  required  a  curing  period  before  they  attained  sufficient 
strength  for  use.  Of  the  84  companies  whose  storage  practices 
could  be  ascertained,  40  stored  panels  according  to  type  and  made  up 
packages  as  orders  came  in;  24  stored  their  finished  goods  as  house 
packages;  five  stored  them  both  ways,  first  according  to  type,  then 
according  to  house  package;  and  15  indicated  that  they  kept  no  finished 
inventory  to  speak  of. 


B.  Plant  Layout 


Plant  layout  is  an  important  aspect  of  production  because  it  gives 
an  indication  of  the  stage  to  which  manufacturing  methods  have  ad 
vanced.  Mass  production  involves  two  primary  concepts:  quantity 
and  standardization.  The  extent  to  which  these  concepts  are  realized 
in  prefabrication  plants  largely  determines  whether  plant  layout  will 
more  closely  approach  line  production  or  repetitive  station  production. 

Line  production  may  be  defined  as  a  method  of  manufacture  or  an 
arrangement  of  work  areas  in  which  the  material  moves  continuously 
and  at  a  uniform  rate  past  a  series  of  work  stations  and  through  a 
sequence  of  balanced  operations,  thus  progressing  towards  comple 
tion  along  a  reasonably  direct  path.  In  repetitive  station  production, 
on  the  other  hand,  all  the  materials  are  brought  to  a  number  of  work 

328 


stations  at  each  of  which  one  crew  performs  a  complete  sequence  of 
operations. 

Thus,  line  production  is  characterized  by  a  thin  stream  of  material 
which  proceeds  from  the  receiving  department  through  fabrication, 
assembly,  and  finishing  to  shipping  along  one  line,  or  at  most  a  few; 
it  involves  a  breakdown  of  operations  into  the  simplest  possible  ele 
ments  and  an  extensive  division  of  labor.  Its  advantages  are  many: 
expensive  high-volume  production  machinery  can  be  effectively  used; 
there  is  a  reduction  in  materials  handling;  more  efficient  utilization 
of  labor  is  made  possible  by  greater  specialization;  supervision  is  fa 
cilitated  because  delays  are  quickly  detected  and  workers  are  paced 
by  the  line;  there  is  less  congestion  in  the  work  areas;  and  the  enforced 
study  of  operations  before  the  line  is  set  up  frequently  results  in  in 
creased  efficiency.  Against  these  advantages  must  be  balanced  a  num 
ber  of  limitations.  A  standardized  output  of  reasonably  large  quantity 
is  required  if  labor  and  machinery  are  to  be  utilized  economically;  a 
delay  in  the  flow  of  materials  to  any  point  or  in  operations  at  that 
point  may  force  workers  further  down  the  line  to  remain  idle;  and 
workers  may  be  opposed  to  working  on  lines,  especially  if  they  are 
accustomed  to  craft  jobs;  even  if  they  are  not  opposed  their  productiv 
ity  and  enjoyment  of  the  work  may  be  less. 

For  these  and  other  reasons,  many  companies  expressed  a  belief 
in  the  economy  of  repetitive  station  production  at  the  time  of  the 
survey.  In  some  cases  their  manufacturing  process  involved  little 
standardization  of  either  house  or  components,  with  many  types  of 
panels  being  produced,  each  at  its  own  jig  table.  In  other  cases  fluc 
tuations  in  volume  were  severe,  and  more  economical  production 
could  be  achieved  by  minimizing  the  investment  in  tools  and  allow 
ing  the  labor  force  to  vary  with  volume— the  number  of  similar  work 
stations  being  increased  or  decreased  as  the  occasion  required.  Occa 
sionally  the  general  scale  on  which  production  was  carried  out  did 
not  warrant  investment  in  conveyers,  high-speed  equipment,  and 
tools.  These  were  some  of  the  factors  underlying  the  planning  of 
repetitive  station  layouts,  several  of  them  in  plants  producing  at  rela 
tively  high  volumes :  The  Green  Lumber  Company,  Hamill  and  Jones, 
American  Houses,  and  Pre-Bilt  Homes  Co.,  Inc. 

It  should  be  pointed  out,  however,  that  while  these  considerations 
may  have  been  applicable  to  some  companies  making  use  of  wood 
frame  and  plywood  construction,  the  nature  of  the  fabrication  pro 
cesses  with  other  materials,  notably  metals,  was  such  that  it  would 
generally  not  be  feasible  to  establish  a  repetitive  station  layout. 

329 


Some  53  out  of  the  103  prefabrication  plants  whose  layouts  could 
be  analyzed  had  more  of  the  characteristics  of  line  production  than  of 
repetitive  station.  At  least  37  companies  were  using  conveyer  lines, 
and  several  were  considering  a  type  of  layout  in  which  jigs  would 
move  past  a  series  of  work  stations,  rather  than  having  the  material 
in  process  move  down  a  line  of  jigs.  Harnischfeger  1B  was  beginning 
to  use  this  scheme,  and  some  of  Lustron's  assembly  operations  were 
set  up  in  a  similar  way  (see  Figure  45).  Furthermore,  many  of  the 
companies  which  had  turned  to  line  production  systems  had  previously 
had  several  years'  experience  with  less  elaborate  layouts  more  like 
the  repetitive  station  plan,  for  instance,  Crawford,  Green's  Ready- 
Built,  Gunnison,  Harnischfeger,  National  Homes,  and  Pease.  Their 
preference  for  the  line  production  process  may  have  been  a  sign  of 
some  maturity  in  the  industry  and  was  certainly  an  indication  that 
many  prefabricators  had  done  a  good  bit  more  than  just  move  a  tradi 
tional  set  of  operations  from  the  field  into  a  factory. 


C.  Production  Scheduling 

Prefabrication  factories  were  further  distinguishable  with  respect 
to  their  methods  of  scheduling  production.  On  the  one  hand,  there 
were  those  plants  which  used  what  might  be  called  a  "job-lot"  system 
of  timing,  producing  only  after  a  definite  order  had  been  placed  for  a 
specific  job.  On  the  other,  there  were  those  firms  whose  production 
was  scheduled  on  a  more  or  less  "steady-flow"  basis,  and  which  manu 
factured  standardized  units  somewhat  in  advance  of  specific  orders, 
maintaining  a  finished  inventory  of  varying  size.  The  job-lot  schedul 
ing  system  was  widely  utilized  by  those  firms  which  produced  a  va 
riety  of  designs,  sometimes  even  individualized  designs.  For  ex 
ample,  Precision-Built  could  take  almost  any  floor  plan,  modularize  it, 
and  produce  it  on  what  was  essentially  a  line  production  set-up. 
American  Houses  was  also  producing  on  a  job-lot  basis,  but  with  an 
assembly  technique  more  like  a  repetitive  station  scheme,  and  with  a 
good  deal  of  precutting  and  preassembly  of  standard  parts.  This 
company's  orders  were  usually  for  large  projects,  so  that  once  a  de 
sign  entered  production,  the  firm  could  get  some  of  the  benefits  of  a 
steady-flow  basis.  Another  example  of  a  compromise  type  of  schedul- 

15  An  important  reason  for  the  Harnischfeger  scheme  was  to  increase  the  ca 
pacity  of  a  given  size  of  plant. 

331 


ing  was  that  offered  by  Better  Living,  Inc.,  which  produced  framing 
subassemblies  and  floor,  ceiling,  and  roof  panels  ahead  of  orders  and 
stocked  them  as  standard  parts,  but  which  made  up  room-size  wall 
panels  of  varying  dimensions  only  as  actually  ordered.  Perhaps  the 
best  examples  of  steady-flow  scheduling  were  those  plants  which  pro 
duced  modular  panels  somewhat  ahead  of  sales  so  that  an  order  for  a 
particular  house  could  be  filled  from  stock  and  shipped  immediately, 
as  did  Gunnison  and  Green's  Ready-Built.  At  the  time  of  the  survey, 
however,  the  overall  demand  was  such  and  the  materials  shortages 
were  so  great  that  these  distinctions  were  often  rather  academic. 

It  is  obvious  that,  for  optimum  production  efficiency,  materials 
should  be  in  continuous  transit  from  receiving  to  shipping  depart 
ments,  and  that  there  should  be  an  order  outstanding  for  each  piece 
that  comes  off  the  line.  This  can  probably  best  be  realized  if  the 
house  is  standardized,  or  if  the  components  of  a  number  of  different 
houses  are  all  standardized.  Not  only  does  this  facilitate  efficient  pro 
duction,  but  the  concept  of  interchangeability  of  packaged  compon 
ents  is  important  also  in  shipping,  for  if  a  dealer  is  not  ready  to  take 
a  house  on  a  certain  day  because  of  weather,  financing  difficulties  or 
other  delays,  the  same  components,  or  almost  all  of  them,  can  be  used 
somewhere  else.  Advantageous  as  it  might  be,  however,  steady-flow 
production  could  not  be  carried  on  by  pref abricators  for  more  than  a 
limited  period.  Daily  and  weekly  production  economies  were  achieved 
through  steady-flow  scheduling,  but  the  leveling  out  of  larger  fluctu 
ations  arising  from  marketing  difficulties,  financing  problems,  and  bad 
weather  could  not  easily  be  managed,  and  virtually  no  firm  was  in  a 
position  to  carry  on  full  production  in  the  face  of  seasonal  changes 
in  building.  To  stabilize  plant  operations  completely  while  being 
subject  to  these  and  other  disturbances  in  distribution  would  have 
required  far  more  capital  than  was  available  in  most  of  the  prefabri- 
cation  industry,  and  probably  more  capital  than  it  would  have  been 
economical  to  tie  up  for  the  advantages  gained,  even  if  it  had  been 
available. 

In  making  a  broad  comparison  between  the  plants  visited,  it  was 
found,  as  might  well  have  been  expected,  that  there  was  some  corre 
lation  between  line  production  and  steady-flow  timing,  and  between 
repetitive  station  production  and  job-lot  timing.  The  correlation  is 
not  so  strong  as  one  might  expect,  and  yet  it  does  serve  to  bring  out 
the  fact  that  there  are  interrelationships  among  such  factors  as  quan 
tity,  degree  of  standardization,  extent  of  breakdown  of  operations, 
division  of  labor,  rates  of  material  flow  and  of  processing,  and  the 
usefulness  of  specialized  production  equipment.  It  is  because  of  the 

332 


interaction  of  all  these  factors  that  a  prefabrication  system  becomes 
as  much  a  matter  of  industrial  design  as  it  is  of  architecture. 

Number  of 

Layout  Scheduling  Companies 

Line  production  Steady  flow  38 

Repetitive  station  Job  lot  29 

Repetitive  station  Steady  flow  21 

Line  production  Job  lot  15 


VI.  Analysis 


A.  The  Amount  of  Manufacture  by  the  Prefabricator 


An  important  fact  in  analyzing  the  contribution  of  the  prefabricator 
is  the  generally  small  proportion  of  the  house  which  he  actually  pro 
duces  in  his  factory.  This  is  a  clue  on  the  one  hand  to  his  inability 
to  achieve  radical  economies  thus  far,  and  on  the  other  hand  an 
indication  of  some  of  the  difficulties  he  faces  in  the  field.  There  was, 
indeed,  wide  variation  among  prefabricators  in  the  extent  to  which 
they  carried  prefabrication.  This  variation  is  a  result  of  differences 
in  design,  local  building  codes,  local  labor  and  building  practices,  the 
size  of  projects,  and  other  factors.16  Even  so,  a  general  statistic 
will  convey  some  useful  information  about  the  cost  structure  of  the 
industry.  The  average  house  package  offered  by  53  companies  f.o.b. 
factory  represented  48%  of  the  retail  price  of  the  erected  house,  ready 
for  occupancy,  but  exclusive  of  land  cost.  An  analysis  by  the  Office 
of  the  Housing  Expediter  of  cost  breakdowns  submitted  by  12  appli 
cants  for  guaranteed  market  contracts  revealed  a  somewhat  larger 
percentage,  58%.17  Figures  ranged  from  37%  to  77%,  and  in  considera 
tion  of  the  inadequacies  of  data  of  this  sort,  it  is  necessary  to  generalize 
that  the  average  prefabricator  was  selling  a  package  representing 
roughly  half  the  dollar  value  of  the  finished  house,  less  lot. 

16  Chapter  7  contains  discussion  of  what  is  and  what  is  not  prefabricated  under 
various  systems. 

17  This  cost  breakdown  is  reproduced  in  Table  3.     The  information  is  also 
summarized  on  p.  149  of  High  Cost  of  Housing. 

333 


Next,  it  may  be  asked  what  part  of  the  value  of  the  package  is 
"created  by"  the  prefabricate!  as  a  producer  and  what  part  is  con 
tributed  by  the  materials  used.  Probably  the  most  satisfactory  meas 
ure  of  this  is  the  "value  added  by  manufacture/'  that  is,  the  increase 
in  the  total  value  of  the  commodities  passing  through  the  prefabri- 
cator's  plant  as  represented  by  the  difference  between  the  cost  of  the 
materials  consumed  and  the  value  of  the  products  made  from  them. 
The  survey  indicated  that  for  the  average  prefabricator  the  value 
added  by  manufacture  amounted  to  about  35%  of  the  house  package 
price.  The  figures  of  the  Office  of  the  Housing  Expediter  came  to 
roughly  40%.  Again,  in  both  cases,  there  was  a  wide  range  in  the 
data,  from  25%  to  45%,  due  largely  to  differences  in  design  and  in  the 
relative  amounts  of  jobbed  materials  and  processed  materials  going 
into  the  package.  As  the  package  was  composed  more  of  materials 
which  the  prefabricator  simply  bought,  stored,  and  packaged,  and  less 
of  materials  which  he  actually  processed  in  his  plant,  the  prefabri 
cator  became  a  synthesizer  and  distributor  rather  than  a  producer, 
and  the  lower  was  the  percentage  of  value  added  by  manufacture. 

Noting  that  the  house  package  represented  about  50%  of  the  value 
of  the  finished  house  and  that  only  about  35%  of  the  package  was 
"created  by"  the  prefabricator,  we  can  deduce  that  his  contribution, 
as  measured  by  the  value  added  in  manufacture,  is  only  about  18% 
of  the  retail  price  of  the  house.  When  we  compare  this  figure  with 
the  percentage  of  value  added  by  manufacture  in  several  other  indus 
tries,  we  see  that  it  is  quite  small:  automobiles,  32%;  furniture,  49%; 
lumber  and  basic  timber  products,  56%;  machine  tools,  70%.18  This 
puts  the  prefabricator  in  a  difficult  position  for,  supposing  that  by 
some  means  he  is  able  to  cut  his  production  costs  in  half— no  mean 
feat— he  will  have  reduced  the  cost  of  the  finished  house  by  only  10% 
(setting  the  percentage  of  value  added  at  an  even  20%).  In  fact,  his 
contribution  is  so  small  that  his  production  position,  from  a  cost  point 
of  view,  might  be  termed  precarious.  Although  this  situation  may  not 
have  been  too  well  understood  by  some  of  the  more  enthusiastic  pro 
ponents  of  prefabrication  during  recent  years,  it  was  pretty  generally 
appreciated  by  members  of  the  industry. 

Prefabricators  are  attempting  to  do  a  job  in  the  factory  that  has  tradition 
ally  been  done  in  the  field.  When  that  job  is  moved  from  the  field  to  the 
factory,  overhead  zooms  upward.  The  small  builder  has  practically  no 

18  Census  of  Manufacturers,  1939,  Vol.  II,  Part  1,  pp.  509,  549;  Part  2,  pp. 
431,  522.  Values  cover  the  period  from  1931-1939.  The  comparison  is  some 
what  unfair  because  these  figures  represent  per  cent  of  wholesale  price. 

334 


overhead  by  comparison.  In  the  factory  we  have,  or  should  have,  low 
labor  rates,  but  overhead  compared  to  that  in  the  field  is  multiplied  many 
times.  That  means  we  must  do  the  same  job  more  cheaply  in  the  factory 
after  accounting  for  a  greatly  increased  overhead.  Of  course,  we  should 
be  able  to  furnish  materials  more  cheaply  than  the  builder  can  buy  them 
himself,  but  it  is  also  desirable  that  we  do  the  work  on  the  materials  more 
cheaply  than  the  builder  can  do  it.  Put  it  this  way:  the  value  added  to 
the  materials  by  the  manufacturer  is  a  small  part  of  the  total  value  of  a 
house.  Since  it  is  a  small  part  of  the  total,  the  savings  on  this  segment 
of  building  cost  must  be  decisive  and  must  be  demonstrated.19 

The  desire  to  increase  their  contribution  to  the  total  value  of  the 
house,  and  to  achieve  the  potential  economies  therefrom,  was  a  major 
factor  in  causing  many  prefabricators  to  manufacture  items  which 
were  subsidiary  to  the  main  structure,  doors,  cabinets,  closets,  etc. 
There  were  other  reasons,  too:  to  assure  a  steady  supply  in  a  period 
of  shortages;  to  obtain  the  exact  dimensions  and  specifications  neces 
sary  for  a  certain  design;  and  to  utilize  scrap  pieces,  for  instance  by 
gluing  them  together  to  make  counter  tops  for  kitchen  cabinets.  There 
were,  on  the  other  hand,  manufacturers  who  maintained  that  it  was 
more  economical  to  buy  such  items  from  specialty  houses,  or  that  it 
would  soon  be  more  economical  to  do  so  because  of  the  production 
efficiency  that  went  with  such  specialization.  In  any  case,  the  follow 
ing  numbers  of  companies  were  found  to  be  manufacturing  various 
subsidiary  items: 

Number  of 

Item  Companies 

Window  sash  38 

Trim  37 

Doors  36 

Kitchen  cabinets  31 

Plumbing  assemblies  27 

Wardrobes,  closets,  or  storagewalls  17 

Sheet-metal  ductwork  13 

Flooring  (softwood)  3 

Whether  through  production  or  purchase  there  seemed  to  be  a 
trend  towards  supplying  a  more  and  more  completely  prefabricated 
house.  This  was  not  a  trend  which  could  be  positively  ascertained, 
since  the  survey  was,  by  its  nature,  a  look  at  the  industry  at  a  definite 
time.  Yet  the  expressed  expectations  and  intentions  of  many  prefabri- 

19  From  a  talk  entitled  "Uniform  Cost  Accounting  for  Prefabricators,"  by  Wil 
liam  A.  Tucker,  Statistician,  PHMI,  at  5th  Annual  PHMI  Meeting,  March  31, 
1948.  This  statement  points  up  production  problems,  but  perhaps  minimizes  the 
savings  possible  in  overall  integration  of  the  housebuilding  process,  from  pro 
curement  to  final  financing  and  erection. 


cators  lay  in  this  direction.  The  reasons  given  related  primarily  to 
the  economies  which  they  hoped  to  realize  through  greater  efficiency 
in  procuring  various  components  and  materials  and  in  production, 
through  less  site  wastage,  fewer  setbacks  due  to  weather,  and  less 
time  lost  by  having  one  crew  wait  for  another  to  finish  its  work. 

It  was  not  demonstrated,  nevertheless,  that  the  greater  the  degree 
of  prefabrication,  the  lower  the  costs;  the  optimum  degree  of  pre- 
fabrication  was  not  established.  Certain  designs  were  largely  de 
pendent  on  the  use  of  factory  processes,  while  others  were  quite  as 
easily  fabricated  in  the  field  as  in  the  shop.  In  the  latter  case,  a 
question  such  as  whether  roofs  should  be  panelized  or  precut,  or  per 
haps  not  furnished  at  all,  was  one  which  hinged  to  a  great  extent  on 
conditions  at  the  site:  the  cost  of  field  labor  relative  to  factory  labor, 
the  skill  of  crews  available  for  erecting  the  house  in  the  field,  the 
conditions  of  weather  and  land  at  the  site,  the  cost  of  supplementary 
materials  in  the  field,  the  transportation  costs  from  plant  to  site,  the 
number  of  houses  being  erected  in  one  group,  etc. 

For  wood  frame  designs  there  seemed  to  be  an  inverse  relationship 
between  the  amount  of  fabrication  economically  performed  in  the 
plant  and  the  number  of  houses  to  be  erected  in  one  group.  Ameri 
can  Houses,  for  instance,  was  fabricating  oply  about  40-45%  of  its 
structure  in  the  factory,  but  seldom  sold  house  packages  for  erection 
in  groups  of  less  than  100.  The  Byrne  Organization's  1,200-unit 
Harundale  project  (not  a  wood  frame  design)  utilized  careful  cost- 
accounting  methods  to  divide  the  work  between  site  and  shop; 
roughly  one-fifth  of  the  total  man-hours  per  house  were  performed 
in  the  shop,  the  balance  at  the  site.20  The  abandonment  by  Kaiser 
Community  Homes  of  the  prefabrication  of  wall  panels  in  favor  of 
precutting 21  is  a  further  indication  of  this  point.  Other  large  opera 
tive  builders  such  as  Levitt,  Bohannon,  and  Ponty  seemed  to  find  that 
some  combination  of  precutting  the  main  structure  and  prefabricating 
minor  components  gave  the  most  economical  results,  and  much  of  the 
war  experience  with  large  projects  pointed  to  similar  conclusions.  The 
major  reason  was,  of  course,  that  in  such  projects  many  aspects  of 
mass  production  could  be  achieved  without  entailing  the  overhead 
and  distribution  expense  that  burdens  the  prefabricator.  There  could 
be  mass  purchasing,  use  of  jigs  and  high-speed  cutting  equipment, 
and  an  extensive  division  of  labor  among  crews  that  move  from 

20  High  Cost  of  Housing,  p.  168.     Actual  figures  given,  207  man-hours  in  the 
shop  and  797  at  the  site,  were  proved  low  by  later  accounting.    Final  figures  were 
not  available. 

21  This  change  in  pattern  of  operations  occurred  after  the  survey  was  completed. 

336 


house  to  house,  rather  than  having  the  houses  move  past  them  on  an 
assembly  line. 

On  the  other  hand,  single-house  or  small  group  erections  did  not 
offer  these  opportunities,  and  it  was  argued  that  for  such  projects 
much  more  fabrication  should  be  done  in  an  off-site  factory  where 
mass-production  techniques  could  be  used.  Whereas  one  firm  which 
precut  and  erected  its  own  house  reported  that  it  cost  $1,200  less  per 
house  to  build  in  groups  of  10  or  more  than  to  build  a  single  house, 
the  cost  differential  which  could  be  obtained  from  erecting  a  highly 
prefabricated  house,  such  as  a  sectional  type,  in  groups  rather  than 
singly  was  probably  quite  small.  Certainly,  in  such  a  case  as  the  TVA 
sectional  house,  where  shipping  and  field  assembly  accounted  for 
only  12%  of  the  total  costs,  or  the  British  AIROH  house,  where  these 
items  were  estimated  to  comprise  only  9%  of  the  total,  the  economies 
of  large  projects  could  not  be  too  important.22  This  argument  cannot 
be  carried  too  far,  however,  for  the  costs  of  grading,  installing  utilities, 
and  constructing  the  foundation  could  be  appreciably  lowered  in  large 
projects.  And  if,  as  in  some  sectional  house  systems,  heavy  equipment 
such  as  a  boom  crane  was  required  at  the  site,  further  economies  could 
be  realized  through  large  group  projects.  Finally,  it  goes  without 
saying  that  the  larger  developments  improved  lots  more  cheaply.  Not 
withstanding  these  qualifications,  it  seemed  a  reasonable  hypothesis 
in  general  that  the  larger  the  number  of  houses  to  be  erected  in  one 
group,  the  less  the  optimum  degree  of  prefabrication. 

Probably  as  important  a  factor  in  governing  the  amount  of  prefabri 
cation  as  any  of  the  above  was  the  existence  of  many  problems  of  a 
"political"  rather  than  a  technical  nature,  including  such  practices  as 
local  purchasing  to  appease  local  distributors,  and  the  elimination  of 
certain  items  because  of  the  wide  diversity  in  codes.  The  solution  of 
these  problems  will  require  much  time  and  effort;  undoubtedly  the 
attention  which  they  have  recently  received  has  been  helpful.  When 
consideration  is  given  to  this  factor  and  to  the  steady,  if  slow,  prog 
ress  in  materials  and  structure  through  research  and  development, 
there  was  evidence  of  a  trend  towards  more  complete  prefabrication, 
at  least  of  major  components.  This  trend  seemed  most  noticeable, 
and  most  logical,  where  the  newest  materials  and  structural  systems 
were  involved. 

22  "Total  cost"  here  excludes  cost  of  land,  grading,  utilities,  and  foundation. 
The  last  three  of  these  items  for  the  average  AIROH  house  totaled  twice  as  much 
as  the  shipping  and  site  assembly  costs.  For  TVA  cost  breakdown,  see  Table  5. 
For  AIROH  figures,  see  Table  6. 


B.  Production  Volume  and  Production  Costs 


Before  turning  to  an  examination  of  actual  production  costs  it 
would  be  useful  to  know  how  costs  varied  with  volume  and  to  what 
degree  prefabricators  were  successful  in  achieving  one  of  the  pre 
requisites  for  mass-production  economy:  high  volume. 

The  volume  at  which  major  production  economies  began  to  be 
possible  was  not  easy  to  specify.  It  depended  largely  on  the  nature 
of  the  house,  the  materials  of  which  it  was  made,  and  the  extent  to 
which  it  was  composed  of  repetitive  elements.  Thus,  one  manufac 
turer  of  a  panelized  but  otherwise  quite  conventional  wood  frame 
design  reported  that  he  would  make  no  profit  if  he  produced  one  house 
per  day,  $18,000  per  month  if  he  produced  two  houses  per  day,  and 
$45,000  per  month  if  he  produced  three  houses  per  day.  On  the 
other  hand,  one  of  the  manufacturers  of  stressed  skin  panel  houses 
was  operating  with  a  break-even  point  of  four  to  five  houses  per  day. 
The  break-even  point  for  a  venture  such  as  Lustron  was  probably  be 
tween  30  and  50  houses  a  day,  compared  with  its  capacity  of  100 
houses  per  day,  on  which  figure  its  pattern  of  operations  was  predi 
cated.  Furthermore,  it  was  difficult  to  untangle  such  factors  as  the 
importance  of  other  manufacturing  operations  where  prefabrication 
was  only  a  subsidiary  one.  It  was  clear,  for  instance,  that  a  lumber 
and  millwork  company  which  carried  on  a  subsidiary  prefabricating 
operation  would  have  a  different  cost  picture  from  that  of  a  company 
whose  sole  work  was  prefabrication.  The  former  might  achieve 
economies  through  bulk  purchasing  of  raw  materials  and  through  in 
tensive  utilization  of  production  equipment  simply  because  of  the 
large-scale  manufacture  of  millwork,  and  not  at  all  because  of  its 
prefabrication  volume,  which  might  be  quite  insignificant  by  com 
parison. 

In  the  light  of  such  wide  variations  there  was  no  single  volume  at 
which  mass-production  economies  began.  It  is  a  fundamental  char 
acteristic  of  industrial  production  in  general  that  as  volume  increases, 
up  to  a  point,  unit  costs  decrease.  No  company  reported  that  it  was 
operating  in  the  range  where  increasing  outputs  would  no  longer 
yield  decreasing  unit  costs.  The  question  might  better  be  put,  what 
volume  was  necessary  to  attain  an  important  share  of  the  economies 
deriving  from  mass  production? 

Houston  Ready-Cut  felt  that  it  did  not  begin  to  achieve  maximum 
economies  at  less  than  2,500  units  per  year.  W.  W.  Rausch,  then  of 

338 


Anchorage  Homes,  said  that  he  believed  an  annual  production  of  at 
least  10,000  houses  per  year  was  necessary  for  full  production  econo 
mies  with  wood.  C.  W.  Farrier,  a  former  Technical  Director  of  NHA 
who  served  as  Housing  Research  Director  for  Gunnison,  reported 
that  "some  of  the  prefabricators  whom  I  have  talked  to  indicate  that 
the  volume  of  houses  that  they  will  have  to  turn  out  in  the  plant  in 
order  to  have  sufficient  ordering  power  to  get  reduced  prices  on 
materials  amounts  to  somewhere  between  20  and  25  houses  a  day"  28 
(5,000-6,250  units  a  year).  A  British  writer,  D.  Dex  Harrison,  said, 
"It  seems  likely  that  the  specialized  designs  will  require  a  minimum 
of  5-10,000  [units  per  year]  before  the  economy  of  mass  production 
is  achieved  in  the  house  as  a  whole  and  before  variations  on  the  one 
design  can  be  contemplated." 24 

These  estimates,  all  but  one  of  which  are  explicitly  based  on  wood 
as  a  material,  average  about  5,000.  No  company,  in  either  1946  or 
1947,  produced  this  many  houses;  the  largest  annual  volumes  reported 
were  between  1,500  and  2,500.25 

As  for  the  industry  as  a  whole,  it  was  operating  at  somewhat  less 
than  half  its  estimated  capacity  in  1946  and  1947.  Between  October 
1946  and  June  1947,  87  plants  were  visited  which  were  actually  in 
production.  Of  these,  27  gave  no  estimate  of  capacity,  and  the  re 
maining  60  reported  that  they  were  producing  at  an  average  of  38% 
of  stated  capacity.26  This,  of  course,  must  be  evaluated  with  the  sea 
sonal  pattern  of  building  in  mind.  A  winter  slump  is  customary, 
even  in  prefabrication.  In  1946  the  industry  produced  37,200  houses, 
and  in  1947,  37,400.27  At  an  average  package  price  of  $3,500,  this 
would  mean  a  gross  dollar  volume  of  about  $130,000,000.  The  1947 
total,  however,  represents  the  output  of  considerably  fewer  firms,  so 

23  Proceedings,  American-Soviet  Building  Conference,  p.  50. 

24  Harrison,  "An  Outline  of  Prefabrication/'  in  Tomorrow's  Houses,  p.  132. 

25  1947:  American  Houses,  1,600;  National  Homes,  2,500;  Kaiser  Community 
Homes,  2,500. 

26  Breakdown  of  60  companies  according  to  reported  capacity: 

Over  200  houses  per  month  5 

100-199  9 

50-99  13 

25-49  11 

Less  than  25  22 

60 

27 1946  total  by  the  Office  of  the  Housing  Expediter,  1947  total  by  PHMI, 
PHMI  News  Release,  May  3,  1948. 

339 


that  average  production  per  firm  rose  substantially.28  Even  so,  at  the 
beginning  of  1948  PHMI  estimated  the  industry's  existing  capacity 
at  120,000  houses  per  year,29  so  that,  based  on  this  figure,  the  produc 
tion  for  the  previous  year  was  at  less  than  one-third  of  capacity.30 
It  is  therefore  safe  to  generalize  that  the  industry  as  a  whole  was  not 
utilizing  its  plant  facilities  to  the  optimum  extent  and  that  there  were 
potential  production  economies  which  had  not  been  achieved. 


C.  Productivity 


One  way  of  measuring  the  potential  effectiveness  of  prefabrication 
in  reducing  costs  is  to  find  out  how  much  it  increases  the  productivity 
of  labor  or,  put  another  way,  decreases  the  number  of  man-hours  re 
quired  to  build  a  house.  For  this  purpose  two  statistics  can  be  used: 
the  number  of  man-hours  of  direct  factory  labor  per  house,  and  the 
number  of  man-hours  of  direct  site  labor  per  house.  These  should  be 
qualified,  however,  by  differences  in  the  size  and  quality  of  the  house, 
by  differences  in  what  is  included  in  the  prefabricated  package,  and 
by  differences  in  the  amount  of  the  package  which  the  prefabricator 
procures  rather  than  produces  himself. 

For  29  producers  of  wood  houses  there  were  required  an  average 
of  226  man-hours  in  the  factory.  Figures  ranged  from  100  to  over  600. 
Other  studies  of  prefabricators  working  in  wood  have  yielded  results 
of  the  same  order  of  magnitude.  The  1947  PHMI  survey  of  40  mem 
ber  companies  gave  an  average  of  268  factory  man-hours  per  house, 
and  a  study  by  the  Bureau  of  Labor  Statistics  31  of  14  prefabricated 
war  housing  projects  found  an  average  of  242. 

At  the  site,  26  companies  were  found  to  require  an  average  of  238 
man-hours  to  erect  and  complete  the  house,  exclusive  of  subcontracted 
work  such  as  grading,  foundation,  heating,  wiring,  plumbing,  and 
sheet-metal  work.  PHMI  found  in  its  1947  survey  that  an  average  of 
182  man-hours  was  consumed  in  erecting  the  house  and  an  average 

28  OHE  figures  for  1946  include  shipments  by  198  producers.    The  1947  figures 
are  based  on  shipments  of  approximately  80  companies. 

29  Statement  of  Harry  H.  Steidle,  Manager,  PHMI,  before  the  Joint  Committee 
of  Congress  on  Housing,  January  14,  1948. 

ao  Actual  production  in  1948  was  30,000  units  (PHMI  News  Release,  June  4, 
1949). 

31  Alexander  C.  Findlay,  "Construction  of  Prefabricated  and  Conventional  War 
Housing  Projects,"  Monthly  Labor  Review,  63  (November  1946),  723,  727.  See 
below,  pp.  342-4. 

340 


of  276  in  finishing  it,  making  a  total  site  time,  exclusive  of  work  on 
the  lot  and  foundation,  of  458  man-hours  per  house.  The  BLS  study, 
based  on  large  projects  where  many  economies  at  the  site  were  pos 
sible,  found  an  average  of  440  site  man-hours  per  house,  but  this 
figure  included  work  on  grading,  utilities,  and  foundation.  All  the 
above  figures  were  for  wood  houses  of  various  designs,  except  that 
no  sectional  types  were  included.  There  were  some  well-publicized 
demonstrations  in  which  a  house  was  erected  in  less  than  half  a  day 
by  a  few  men,  but  when  these  were  examined  more  closely  it  could 
be  seen  that  a  good  bit  of  preparatory  work  had  been  done  in  im 
proving  the  site,  building  the  foundation,  and,  often,  in  having  special 
pieces  of  equipment  ready  to  do  their  special  jobs.  With  the  sectional 
house,  the  time  required  for  erection  was  at  a  minimum.  The  Reli 
ance  house,  for  instance,  was  completely  erected  in  a  demonstration 
during  a  snowstorm  in  less  than  20  man-hours.32  The  Prenco  and 
TVA  houses  generally  were  erected,  complete  with  all  connections 
made,  in  one  day  or  less,  using  a  crew  of  six  to  eight  men.  The 
AIROH  house,  a  British  sectional  type  of  which  more  than  69,000 
were  built  since  the  war,  required  less  than  50  man-hours  3S  to  erect, 
whereas  other  prefabricated  houses  built  under  the  British  Temporary 
Housing  Program  which  arrived  at  the  site  as  collections  of  panels, 
cabinets,  subassemblies,  and  loose  material  required  an  average  of 
300-400  man-hours  34  of  site  labor.  Again,  these  figures  do  not  include 
the  work  of  preparing  the  site  and  foundation  and  of  installing  utili 
ties.  A  cost  analysis  of  the  AIROH  house,  for  instance,  shows  that 
these  three  items  may  total  over  four  times  as  much  in  cost  as  the 
erection  itself.35 

If  allowance  is  made  for  these  differences  in  basis  of  figuring  among 
the  companies,  then  for  the  "typical"  24'  X  32'  house  of  panelized 
wood  construction  roughly  250  man-hours  were  required  at  the  fac 
tory  and  450  at  the  site  (not  including  grading,  utilities,  and  founda 
tion).  It  would  be  interesting  to  compare  these  figures  with  com 
parable  figures  for  convential  construction,  but  it  is  difficult  to  obtain 
productivity  data  for  conventional  building  which  would  permit  a 
fair  comparative  analysis.  Not  only  should  such  data  be  classified 
according  to  the  size  and  quality  of  the  house,  but  also  according  to 
the  number  of  houses  built  in  any  one  project,  the  conditions  of 

32  Near  Philadelphia,  Winter  1948. 

83  Unpublished  paper  by  Carroll  A.  Towne,  Prefabrication  Advisor,  HHFA, 
May  1948,  in  the  files  of  the  Bemis  Foundation. 

84  Loc.  cit. 
35  Loc.  cit. 

341 


weather,  materials  supply,  and  so  forth.  Estimates  range  from  1,000 
to  2,500  man-hours  as  the  labor  time  required  in  building  one  house 
by  conventional  methods,  but  the  exact  basis  of  these  estimates  is  not 
clear.  In  the  absence  of  results  of  controlled  experiments,  it  will 
have  to  suffice  to  use  what  would  seem  a  reliable  figure  and  a  fair 
one  for  purposes  of  comparison:  the  estimate  developed  by  the  Small 
Homes  Council  of  the  University  of  Illinois  in  its  time-study  analysis 
of  the  construction  of  the  "industry-engineered  house."36  This  was 
a  two-bedroom,  single-story,  768  sq.  ft.  dwelling  with  basement.  The 
total  requirement  by  conventional  methods  averaged  2,091  man- 
hours,37  and,  according  to  the  report,  "Records  indicate  that  savings  up 
to  20%  of  total  labor  can  be  made  by  the  use  of  engineered  con 
struction  methods  and  organized  operations  at  the  site." 38  Figures 
included  all  work  from  excavation  for  the  basement  to  finishing  de 
tails.  They  were,  furthermore,  based  on  the  construction  of  one 
house  at  a  time. 

When  housing  is  built  in  large  group  projects,  however,  productiv 
ity  comparisons  are  apt  to  yield  quite  different  results.  Probably  the 
best  study  of  this  sort  was  one  made  by  the  Bureau  of  Labor  Statistics 
based  on  24  war  housing  projects,  two-thirds  of  which  were  prefabri 
cated.89  It  was  found  that  the  average  saving  in  total  man-hours  at 
the  prefabricated  projects  was  only  about  8%  (p.  343).  All  the  projects 
studied  used  wood  as  their  basic  material,  but  the  prefabricated  group 
was  further  classified  into  three  different  types:  stressed  skin,  frame 
panel,  and  incomplete  prefabrication  (the  last  subgroup  included  two 
frame  assembly  and  two  frame  panel  with  conventional  floors  and 
roofs).  Man-hour  requirements  for  these  three  classifications  were 
found  to  differ  significantly:  for  the  first  they  were  nearly  one-quarter 
less  than  for  conventional  construction,  for  the  second  about  2%  less, 
and  for  the  third  about  one-sixth  more.  The  comparisons  were  for 
corresponding  operations— the  customary  site  work  at  the  conven 
tional  projects  and  the  site  work,  plus  factory  work,  plus  related  oper 
ations  such  as  transportation  at  the  prefabricated  projects.  As  the 
study  was  careful  to  point  out,  however,  the  data  used  were  insuffi 
cient  for  general  comparisons  between  prefabricated  and  conventional 
construction.  For  one  thing  there  were  differences  in  weather,  in 

36  Research  Report  on  Construction  Methods. 

87  Of  this  total,  excavation,  footings,  foundation,  basement,  floor,  floor  joist  and 
subfloor  accounted  for  257  man-hours. 

38  Research  Report  on  Construction  Methods,  p.  16. 

39  Findlay,  op.  tit.,  pp.  721-32. 

342 


the  "natural"  efficiency  of  labor,40  and  in  materials  supply  conditions 
in  different  regions.  Furthermore,  the  data  applied  to  housing  built 
in  large  group  projects  so  that,  in  effect,  the  word  "conventional"  had 
a  rather  special  meaning.  Lastly,  it  would  be  unfair  to  judge  present 
prefabrication  by  the  wartime  product. 

Unit  Man-hour  Requirements  on  War  Housing  Projects  (by  type  of 
construction) 


Man-hours 

Requirements  as  a  Percentage  of 
Conventional  Requirements 

i  ype  or 
Construction 

Per  Dwell 
ing  Unit 

Per  1,000 
Gross 
Sq.  Ft. 

Per  Dwell 
ing  Unit 

Per  1,000 
Gross 
Sq.  Ft. 

Composite 

Conventional 

917.2 

998.8 

100.0 

100.0 

100.0 

Prefabricated 

682.1 

978.3 

74.4 

97.9 

92.7 

Stressed  skin 

564.3 

798.7 

61.5 

80.0 

75.9 

Standard  panel  * 

716.3 

1,041.7 

78.1 

104.3 

98.5 

Incomplete  2 

877.0 

1,236.0 

95.6 

123.7 

117.3 

1  Frame  panel  according  to  our  classification. 

2  Includes  two  frame  assembly  and  two  frame  panel  with  conventional  floor  and  roof. 
Source:  Alexander  C.  Findlay,  "Construction  of  Prefabricated  and  Conventional  War 

Housing  Projects,"  Monthly  Labor  Review,  63  (November  1946),  721-32. 

In  spite  of  all  these  variables,  however,  mention  should  be  made  of 
some  of  the  conclusions  of  this  study: 

(1)  Of  the  total  man-hours  required  for  site  work,  from  a  fifth  to 
three-fifths  could  be  transferred  from  the  site,  to  be  carried  on  in 
the  prefabricating  plants  and  in  related  operations  such  as  transpor 
tation.    In  no  case,  however,  was  the  site  work  reduced  to  a  negligible 
figure,  the  lowest  being  261  man-hours. 

(2)  As  for  skills,  the  prefabricated  projects  required  a  larger  per 
centage  of  laborers'  and  foremen's  man-hours  than  conventional  oper 
ations.     However,  it  was  found  that  the  prefabricated  and  conven 
tional  operations  were  not  so  dissimilar  in  percentage  distribution  of 
skilled  workers  and  foremen  by  trades. 

40  For  instance,  differences  in  standards  and  in  the  "natural"  efficiency  of  labor 
made  the  data  biased  in  favor  of  stressed  skin  and  against  incompletely  prefabri 
cated  houses. 

343 


(3)  The  comparatively  few  instances  in  which  non-structural  work, 
such  as  plumbing  and  electrical  work,  was  performed  in  the  prefabri 
cating  plants  demonstrated  that  a  net  man-hour  saving  could  be  ex 
pected  from  such  plant  operations  only  under  certain  circumstances: 
when  there  were  a  minimum  number  of  connections  to  be  made 
between  panels;  when  work  could  be  concentrated  in  a  small  portion 
of  the  house,  for  instance  within  one  or  two  adjoining  panels;  and 
when  excessive  protection  or  care  was  not  required  to  prevent  damage 
during  transport. 


D.  Production  Costs 


Turning  now  to  a  consideration  of  costs,  probably  the  single  cri 
terion  by  which  prefabrication  has  most  often  been  judged,  the  final 
production  cost  of  a  prefabricated  house  should,  ideally,  be  compared 
with  that  of  a  conventionally  built  house  of  the  same  size  and  quality 
in  the  same  location.  Further,  a  determination  by  accurate  account 
ing  of  the  optimum  degree  of  prefabrication,  qualified  according  to 
the  type  of  market,  the  design,  the  number  of  houses  being  built  in 
one  group,  and  many  other  factors,  would  be  desirable.  But  the  main 
interest  of  the  consumer  is  the  price  of  the  house,  and  price  involves 
many  factors  in  addition  to  production  costs  factors  such  as  market 
size  and  location,  dealer  organization,  transportation,  and  financing, 
which  are  covered  in  the  next  chapter. 

Unfortunately,  reliable  cost  breakdowns  are  difficult  to  develop. 
For  one  thing,  manufacturers  were  understandably  reluctant  to  re 
lease  the  information.  For  another,  cost-accounting  systems  were  not 
uniform,  the  same  item  being  counted  in  a  number  of  ways  by  differ 
ent  prefabricators.  (Recently  there  had  been  an  effort,  led  by  PHMI, 
to  standardize  cost-accounting  practices  so  that  prefabricators  could 
compare  cost  figures  and  learn  from  each  other.)  And  third,  com 
panies  varied  greatly  in  the  extent  to  which  they  acted  as  jobbers,  in 
the  amount  of  production  which  they  did  themselves,  and  in  the  com 
pleteness  of  their  package.  For  these  and  other  reasons  outlined  be 
low,  such  cost  breakdowns  as  can  be  presented  in  a  publication  of 
this  sort  are  of  somewhat  limited  value. 


344 


1.  Cost  Figures  Submitted  to  the  Office  of  the  Housing  Expediter 

Tables  2  and  3  summarize  data  submitted  to  the  Office  of  the 
Housing  Expediter  during  late  1946  and  the  first  half  of  1947.  This 
information  should  be  interpreted  with  the  following  facts  in  mind: 
the  sample  was  a  very  small  one;  the  figures  do  not  reflect  today's 
prices;  and  the  data  were  really  estimates  of  cost  made  by  firms  which, 
for  the  most  part,  had  done  little  or  no  previous  work  in  prefabrica- 
tion— therefore  some  of  the  figures  might  better  be  regarded  as  decla 
rations  of  intent  than  as  records  of  performance.  A  digest  of  these 
figures  appears  in  High  Cost  of  Housing  along  with  a  commentary 
written  chiefly  by  the  staff  of  the  Housing  and  Home  Finance  Agency. 
We  quote: 

The  direct  factory  labor  costs  range  from  a  low  of  1.13  percent  to  a 
high  of  14.10  percent.  The  low  percentage  is  found  in  a  plant  which  sub 
contracts  virtually  all  of  its  fabrication,  and  therefore  a  fair  median  per 
centage  would  be  closer  to  12  percent  than  the  average  of  7.48  percent 
shown  in  table  2. 

...  It  is  obvious  that  prospects  of  securing  cost  reductions  through 
elimination  of  direct  and  indirect  labor  in  plants  are  definitely  limited.  For 
example,  cutting  the  direct  factory  labor  cost  in  half  would  reduce  the 
total  cost  of  the  erected  house  by  3  to  6  percent.  Reduction  of  field  labor 
costs,  which  range  from  a  low  at  7.81  percent  to  a  high  of  26.17  percent, 
perhaps  holds  more  promise. 

On  the  other  hand,  the  direct  materials  cost  in  the  house  package  is,  in 
every  case,  the  highest  single  factory  cost  item.  In  most  cases,  this  is 
true  in  the  field  as  well.  The  prospect  of  savings  here,  both  by  develop 
ment  of  designs  which  eliminate  unnecessary  material,  and  by  reductions 
in  unit  materials  prices  through  elimination  of  wholesale  mark-ups  are 
substantial. 

Indirect  and  administrative  costs  generally  represent  such  small  per 
centages  as  to  offer  little  promise  of  cost  reduction.  It  should  be  noted 
that  allowances  for  factory  sales  expense  are  abnormally  low  in  every  case. 
Informed  judgment  on  this  subject  has  concluded  that  a  factory  sales 
allowance  of  5  percent  is  essential  to  successful  merchandising  in  this  field. 

Considered  either  separately  or  combined,  the  factory  and  field  allow 
ances  for  profit  in  this  tabulation  cannot  be  regarded  as  excessive.  .  .  . 
Actually,  the  average  field  profit  of  8.84  percent  is  somewhat  below  that 
which  is  customary  in  the  field  of  conventional  building.41 

It  may  be  interesting  to  note,  by  way  of  comparison,  that  the  evi 
dence  presented  to  the  Joint  Committee  on  Housing  of  the  80th  Con 
gress  42  indicated  that,  for  conventional  residential  construction,  labor 

41  High  Cost  of  Housing,  p.  151. 

42  High   Cost  of  Housing,   pp.   76-9.      Sources  quoted:    Housing   and   Home 
Finance  Agency,  Bureau  of  Labor  Statistics,  New  York  City  Housing  Authority, 
The  Econometric  Institute,  Inc.,  New  York.    Much  of  the  testimony  is  conflicting. 

345 


Table  2 

Summary  of  Unit  Costs  of  Prefabrication  Price  Ranges 


Total 

Plywood 

Element  of  Total  Cost 

From 

To 

Average 

From 

To 

Average 

Package,  total 

2,269.13 

5,794.57 

3,460.67 

2,747.26 

5,794.57 

3,799.57 

Erection,  total 

1,150.00 

3,824.00 

2,448.27 

1,150.00 

2,657.83 

1,828.99 

Total  cost,  less  land 

4,468.19 

7,702.42 

5,908.94 

4,468.19 

7,518.57 

5,628.56 

Package 

Direct  material 

1,243.98 

3,081.00 

2,110.37 

1,785.07 

3,081.00 

2,344.41 

Direct  labor 

63.60 

1,060.29 

451.08 

163.44 

1,060.29 

700.48 

Indirect  labor 

65.36 

604.39 

183.82 

111.63 

185.38 

143.27 

Other  indirect 

116.30 

577.18 

331.42 

284.30 

577.18 

431.01 

Administration 

29.94 

197.00 

97.30 

29.94 

52.28 

39.88 

Sales  expense 

37.57 

258.98 

151.38 

152.40 

258.98 

200.41 

Profit 

226.91 

579.46 

354.70 

256.03 

579.46 

399.11 

Erection 

Direct  material 

232.00 

1,905.00 

841.85 

232.00 

831.99 

401.44 

Direct  labor 

422.00 

1,471.44 

820.35 

422.00 

986.84 

693.67 

Freight  and  delivery 

45.00 

375.00 

163.63 

45.00 

260.00 

128.75 

Indirect  labor 

Other  indirect 

31.50 

125.00 

86.03 

50.00 

100.00 

77.86 

Administration 

Sales  expense 

Profit 

250.00 

807.00 

526.41 

370.00 

613.00 

491.00 

Total,  package  and 

erection 

Direct  material 

2,017.07 

3,696.96 

2,970.43 

2,017.07 

3,448.00 

2,709.01 

Direct  labor 

947.44 

1,647.29 

1,253.48 

947.44 

1,647.29 

1,262.28 

Total  direct  costs 

3,062.10 

5,250.20 

4,228.09 

3,062.10 

5,095.29 

3,908.04 

Freight  and  delivery 

45.00 

375.00 

162.63 

45.00 

260.00 

128.75 

Indirect  labor 

65.36 

604.39 

183.82 

111.63 

185.38 

143.27 

Other  indirect 

50.00 

659.18 

327.78 

50.00 

659.18 

361.50 

Administration 

29.94 

197.00 

97.30 

29.94 

52.28 

39.88 

Sales  expense 

37.57 

259.98 

151.38 

152.40 

259.98 

200.41 

Profit 

450.00 

1,192.46 

865.55 

450.00 

1,192.46 

842.13 

Source:  Office  of  the  Housing  Expediter  figures. 


146 


Table  2  (Continued) 

Summary  of  Unit  Costs  of  Prefabrication  Price  Ranges 


Wood 

Metal 

Element  of  Total  Cost 

From 

To 

Average 

From 

To 

Average 

Package,  total 

2,269.13 

3,351.61 

2,665.49 

2,823.60 

4,716.36 

3,872.63 

Erection,  total 

2,579.00 

3,824.00 

3,163.58 

1,835.57 

3,159.00 

2,580.76 

Total  cost,  less  land 

5,150.74 

6,839.61 

5,829.08 

5,622.64 

7,702.42 

6,453.39 

Package 

Direct  material 

1,243.98 

2,108.91 

1,621.56 

2,015.14 

3,067.98 

2,462.89 

Direct  labor 

272.27 

401.50 

334.33 

63.60 

500.00 

341.77 

Indirect  labor 

65.36 

65.36 

65.36  * 

72.00 

604.39 

304.41 

Other  indirect 

116.30 

116.30 

1  16.30  l 

126.82 

534.70 

270.34 

Administration 

82.00 

142.56 

112.28 

117.45 

197.00 

147.23 

Sales  expense 

90.77 

123.50 

107.14 

37.57 

172.96 

124.47 

Profit 

226.91 

335.16 

266.55 

306.40 

471.63 

407.19 

Erection 

Direct  material 

1,047.00 

1,905.00 

1,380.08 

345.60 

1,406.00 

915.34 

Direct  labor 

692.00 

1,230.00 

908.00 

719.00 

1,471.44 

942.23 

Freight  and  delivery 

60.00 

375.00 

233.33 

65.00 

290.00 

132.00 

Indirect  labor 

Other  indirect 

75.00 

125.00 

108.33 

31.50 

75.00 

60.50 

Administration 

Sales  expense 

Profit 

465.00 

646.00 

533.83 

250.00 

807.00 

560.00 

Total,  package  and 

erection 

Direct  material 

2,666.47 

3,507.91 

3,001.64 

2,415.60 

3,696.96 

3,249.65 

Direct  labor 

964.27 

1,613.25 

1,242.33 

1,058.60 

1,535.04 

1,259.20 

Total  direct  costs 

3,630.74 

4,808.61 

4,243.98 

3,950.64 

5,250.20 

4,657.12 

Freight  and  delivery 

60.00 

375.00 

233.33 

65.00 

290.00 

132.00 

Indirect  labor 

65.36 

65.36 

65.36  ' 

72.00 

604.39 

304.41 

Other  indirect 

191.30 

191.30 

191.301 

126.82 

609.70 

305.84 

Administration 

82.00 

142.56 

112.28 

117.45 

197.00 

147.23 

Sales  expense 

90.77 

123.50 

107.14 

37.57 

172.96 

124.47 

Profit 

722.17 

981.16 

800.38 

721.63 

1,189.00 

967.19 

1  Information  on  one  firm  only;  therefore  not  an  average  figure. 
Source:  Office  of  the  Housing  Expediter  figures. 


347 


Table  3 

Breakdown  of  Cost  to  Consumer  of  Erected   House  without  Lot 


Total  (%) 

Plywood  (%) 

Element  of  Total  Cost 

From 

To 

Average 

From 

To 

Average 

Package,  total 

37.24 

77.07 

58.34 

55.39 

77.07 

66.93 

Erection,  total 

22.93 

62.76 

41.66 

22.93 

44.61 

33.07 

Total  cost,  less  land 

100.00 

100.00 

100.00 

100.00 

100.00 

100.00 

Package 

Direct  material 

20.42 

46.83 

35.20 

39.83 

41.82 

40.79 

Direct  labor 

1.13 

14.10 

7.48 

3.35 

14.10 

11.87 

Indirect  labor 

1.07 

7.84 

2.89 

2.05 

3.65 

2.55 

Other  indirect 

1.89 

7.68 

5.20 

6.36 

7.68 

7.14 

Administration 

0.64 

2.56 

1.53 

0.64 

0.69 

0.67 

Sales  expense 

0.56 

3.44 

2.46 

3.20 

3.44 

3.37 

Profit 

3.72 

7.71 

5.92 

5.39 

7.71 

6.93 

Erection 

Direct  material 

4.88 

31.26 

14.21 

4.88 

13.97 

7.22 

Direct  labor 

7.81 

26.17 

14.20 

7.81 

17.15 

12.63 

Freight  and  delivery 

0.90 

5.48 

2.78 

0.90 

5.47 

2.37 

Indirect  labor 

Other  indirect 

0.48 

2.43 

1.49 

1.09 

1.82 

1.38 

Administration 

Sales  expense 

Profit 

3.82 

14.36 

8.84 

8.15 

9.23 

8.53 

Total,  package  and  erection 

Direct  material 

42.96 

58.05 

50.00 

44.89 

54.57 

47.39 

Direct  labor 

14.58 

27.30 

21.22 

19.43 

23.38 

21.99 

Total  direct  costs 

61.19 

78.21 

71.72 

67.77 

74.00 

70.20 

Freight  and  delivery 

0.90 

5.48 

2.78 

0.90 

5.47 

2.37 

Indirect  labor 

1.07 

7.84 

2.89 

2.05 

3.65 

2.53 

Other  indirect 

1.05 

8.77 

5.23 

1.05 

8.77 

6.10 

Administration 

0.64 

2.56 

1.53 

0.64 

0.69 

0.67 

Sales  expense 

0.56 

3.44 

2.46 

3.20 

3.44 

3.37 

Profit 

9.23 

21.15 

14.40 

9.23 

15.86 

14.46 

Source:  Office  of  the  Housing  Expediter  figures. 


348 


Table  3  (Continued) 

Breakdown  of  Cost  to  Consumer  of  Erected  House  without  Lot 


\ 

tfood  (% 

1! 

1 

Ketal  (%' 

I  ' 

T?1                   L       f  T*     *.    1    /"*        - 

Element  of  Total  Cost 

From 

To 

Average 

From 

To 

Average 

Package,  total 

37.24 

50.13 

45.84 

50.21 

71.98 

59.59 

Erection,  total 

49.67 

62.76 

54.16 

28.02 

49.79 

40.41 

Total  cost,  less  land 

100.00 

100.00 

100.00 

100.00 

100.00 

100.00 

Package 

Direct  material 

20.42 

31.45 

27.90 

28.36 

46.83 

38.37 

Direct  labor 

5.19 

7.00 

5.74 

1.13 

7.63 

5.17 

Indirect  labor 

1.07 

1.07 

1.071 

1.07 

7.84 

4.17 

Other  indirect 

1.91 

1.91 

1.911 

1.89 

6.94 

3.70 

Administration 

1.43 

2.34 

1.89 

1.79 

2.56 

2.20 

Sales  expense 

1.49 

2.15 

1.92 

0.56 

2.64 

1.88 

Profit 

3.72 

5.02 

4.58 

5.40 

7.20 

6.31 

Erection 

Direct  material 

20.25 

31.26 

23.60 

6.15 

22.56 

14.14 

Direct  labor 

13.38 

20.19 

15.53 

9.33 

26.17 

15.35 

Freight  and  delivery 

0.98 

5.48 

4.01 

0.97 

3.77 

1.98 

Indirect  labor 

Other  indirect 

1.23 

2.43 

1.89 

0.48 

1.33 

0.93 

Administration 

Sales  expense 

Profit 

9.02 

9.45 

9.15 

3.82 

14.36 

8.83 

Total,  package  and  erection 

Direct  material 

49.85 

52.71 

51.50 

42.96 

58.05 

51.01 

Direct  labor 

18.72 

26.48 

21.27 

14.58 

27.30 

20.17 

Total  direct  costs 

70.30 

78.16 

72.77 

61.19 

78.21 

72.59 

Freight  and  delivery 

0.98 

5.48 

4.01 

0.97 

3.77 

1.98 

Indirect  labor 

1.07 

1.07 

1.071 

1.07 

7.84 

4.17 

Other  indirect 

3.14 

3.14 

3.141 

1.89 

7.92 

4.19 

Administration 

1.43 

2.34 

1.89 

1.79 

2.56 

2.20 

Sales  expense 

1.49 

2.15 

1.82 

0.56 

2.64 

1.88 

Profit 

12.82 

14.35 

13.73 

11.02 

21.15 

15.14 

1  Information  on  one  firm  only;  therefore  not  an  average  figure. 
Source:  Office  of  the  Housing  Expediter  figures. 


349 


costs  range  from  35%  to  45%  of  final  price,  less  lot.  This  was  a  sub 
stantially  greater  proportion  than  that  shown  by  Table  3,  in  which 
total  direct  labor  costs  accounted  for  14-27%  of  the  final  price,  less 
lot,  and  total  indirect  labor  costs  accounted  for  1-8%.  The  lower  pro 
portion  of  labor  costs  in  prefabrication  has  been  explained  not  only 
by  greater  productivity,  but  also  by  lower  hourly  wage  rates  stem 
ming  from  the  lower  skill  requirements,  better  working  conditions, 
and  steadier  employment. 

In  considering  the  percentage  allocated  to  sales  expense,  it  should 
be  remembered  that  the  data  represented  mostly  new  firms  which 
did  not  have  established  distribution  systems.  An  unfortunately  large 
number  of  prefabricators  during  this  period  thought  that,  because  of 
the  acute  housing  shortage,  all  that  had  to  be  done  was  to  get  the 
production  line  moving— that  somehow  the  process  of  getting  the 
houses  from  the  end  of  the  line  to  the  customer's  lot,  financed  and 
ready  for  occupancy,  was  not  a  problem.  Experience  has  proved 
otherwise,  and  if  similar  estimates  were  to  be  submitted  today,  they 
would  probably  include  a  much  more  substantial  item  to  cover  the 
costs  of  establishing  an  organization  able  continuously  to  sell,  finance, 
erect,  and  service  houses  as  they  are  produced.  Once  such  an  organi 
zation  was  established  and  growing  at  a  small  but  steady  rate,  how 
ever,  its  percentage  cost  might  well  be  reduced. 

Another  item  that  deserves  attention  is  the  sum  of  indirect  and  ad 
ministrative  costs.  It  may  be  true  that  these,  as  the  above  quotation 
points  out,  "represent  such  small  percentages  as  to  offer  little  promise 
of  cost  reduction."  But  to  stop  here  would  be  to  overlook  at  least  two 
important  points.  For  one  thing,  while  these  costs  may  be  a  small 
percentage  of  the  total  at  high  volumes,  they  may  skyrocket  as  volumes 
fall.  During  the  past  few  years  overhead  costs  have  been  the  down 
fall  of  more  than  a  few  newly  established  prefabricators  who  re 
quired  some  time  to  smooth  out  their  operations  and  who,  by  the  time 
they  had  overcome  the  problems  of  marketing,  found  that  their 
working  capital  had  been  consumed  in  such  expenses. 

More  important  is  the  relationship  between  the  overhead  encount 
ered  when  the  building  process  is  moved  into  a  factory  and  the  sav 
ings  in  labor  cost  thus  achieved.  Clearly,  from  the  production  stand 
point,  if  the  additional  indirect  expenses  outweigh  the  savings  in  di 
rect  costs,  it  is  uneconomical  to  shift  an  operation  from  the  field  to  a 
plant  removed  from  the  site.  This  point  has  been  very  well  sum 
marized  by  Robert  W.  McLaughlin,  a  veteran  prefabricator: 

Criticize  the  so-called  construction  industry  as  you  will,  it  has  demon 
strated  its  ability  to  operate  in  the  field  at  an  extremely  low  overhead. 

350 


Exclusive  of  insurance  and  social  security  charges,  overhead  on  construc 
tion  labor  is  of  the  nature  of  5-10%.  In  any  factory,  on  the  other  hand, 
overhead  on  direct  labor  will  vary  from  100%  to  300%  or  even  more. 
My  own  experience  with  wood  fabrication  was  that  factory  overhead  ran 
something  over  100%.  That  is  factory  overhead  only,  without  adminis 
tration  or  sales  expense.  I  am  told  that  a  plant  of  average  mechanization, 
such  as  a  vacuum  cleaner  plant,  will  have  an  overhead  ratio  to  direct  labor 
of  about  150%,  and  that  in  more  highly  mechanized  straight  line  produc 
tion  the  rate  will  be  of  the  nature  of  200%  or  even  higher.  What  does 
this  mean  with  respect  to  the  factory  processing  of  wood?  Assume  a  field 
labor  operation  costing  $100.  With  10%  overhead  the  operation  per 
formed  in  the  field  will  appear  on  the  cost  sheet  at  $110.  Along  comes 
the  prefabrication  enthusiast  who  assures  you  that  he  can  save  40%  of  the 
direct  labor  cost  by  doing  it  in  the  factory— that  he  can  do  the  $100  opera 
tion  in  the  factory  for  $60  worth  of  labor.  40%  is  quite  a  saving.  But 
immediately  he  has  to  add  at  least  100%  factory  overhead,  and  his  true 
cost  becomes  at  least  $120  as  against  a  field  cost  of  $110.  Also  we  have 
to  think  about  additional  transportation  and  handling.  It  is  apparent 
that  removal  of  a  labor  operation  from  the  field  can  be  justified  only  if  the 
direct  labor  saving  is  really  great— of  the  nature  of  75%  or  80%.  This 
substantiates  our  earlier  statement  that  if  we  are  to  change  the  locale  of  the 
process  at  all  we  have  to  change  the  overall  process  radically.  We  also 
categorically  state  that  the  nature  of  wood  does  not  present  enough  oppor 
tunity  for  mechanization  to  warrant  a  shift  in  the  process  from  field  to 
large,  central  factories.43 

This  telling  comment  by  one  who  has  spent  more  than  15  years 
prefabricating  in  wood,  metal,  and  other  materials  is  not  to  be 
brushed  lightly  aside.  McLaughlin's  estimate  that  factory  overhead 
costs  amount  to  about  100%  of  direct  labor  costs  is  substantiated  by 
the  figures  in  Table  4.  In  this  breakdown  it  can  be  seen  that  direct 
factory  labor  and  factory  overhead  are  roughly  equal.  In  very  few 
circumstances  have  prefabricators  yet  achieved  savings  in  direct  labor 
of  75-80%,  and,  in  the  light  of  the  above  reasoning,  this  may  offer  at 
least  a  partial  explanation  for  the  somewhat  disappointing  results  of 
prefabrication  in  cutting  the  cost  of  building  to  date. 


2.  Budget  Cost  Figures  of  a  Large  Producer  of  Stressed  Skin  Plywood 
Houses 

Table  4  presents  the  percentage  breakdown  of  unit  costs  for  the 
package  only.  The  figures  indicate  allocations  of  cost  expected  in 
order  to  break  even  on  an  annual  production  of  1,500  units,  with  the 

43  Talk  delivered  at  Massachusetts  Institute  of  Technology,  February  26,  1948. 

351 


indicated  net  income  serving  merely  as  a  safety  margin.  At  least  10% 
profit  would  be  required  for  a  continuing  operation.  Production  of 
more  than  1,500  units  would  lower  percentages  for  plant  expenses 
and  for  sales,  general,  and  administrative  expenses.  As  these  were 
lowered  through  increased  volume,  the  gross  profit  and  net  income 
would  increase  accordingly.  The  house  in  question  was  of  stressed 
skin  plywood  construction  and  was  being  produced  in  one  of  the  best- 
equipped  plants  in  the  industry. 

Table  4 

Budget  Cost  Figures  Based  on  1,500  Houses  per  Year 

A  Large  Manufacturer  of  Stressed  Skin  Plywood  Houses  l  (January  1,  1948) 

Item  Per  Cent 

Total  house  package  (f.o.b.)  100 . 00 

Direct  materials 

Processed  materials  52.91 

Jobbed  materials  24.75 


Total  77.66 

Total  labor 

Direct  manufacturing  3 . 82 

Rework  and  repair  0.36 

Materials  handling  and  shipping  1 . 96 

Service  and  maintenance  0.72 

Wage  premiums  0.06 

Total  6.92 

Margin  above  materials  and  labor  14.43 

Indirect  plant  expense  (materials  and  service)  2.24 

Plant  overhead  and  administrative  expense  3 . 89 

Total  plant  cost  91.70 

Gross  profit  8.30 

Sales,  general  and  administrative  expense 

Selling  expense  2.02 

General  administrative  expense  2.63 

Total  4.65 

Operating  profit  3.65 

Other  income  and  deductions  (net)  1 . 48 

Grand  total  all  costs  94.87 

Net  income  before  taxes  5. 13 

1  These  figures  are  for  a  24'  X  28'  house.    Package  price,  f.o.b.,  $4,100.    The  average 
price  of  this  house,  erected  but  less  lot,  would  be  about  $7,000. 

352 


Table  5 

Cost  Breakdown  for  TVA  Sectional  House  (1943) x 

Dollars 

Item  Per  Cent  per  House 

Gross  sales  100.00  2,673 

Materials  43.96  1,175 

Labor  18.71  500 
Plant  burden 

Rent  0.94  25 

Heat  0.56  15 

Light  0.56  15 

Power  0.56  15 

Insurance  0.56  15 

Maintenance  0.56  15 

Supervision  2.24  60 

Cost  of  manufactured  goods  68 . 65  1 , 835 

Manufacturing  profit  31.35  838 

Expenses 

Selling  2.43  65 
Shipping 

Loading  0.56  15 

Weather  protection  0.56  15 

Trucking  5.16  138 

Permits  0.37  10 

Unloading  1.31  35 
Field  assembly 

Labor  and  materials  2.24  60 

Supervision  and  overhead  1.88  50 

Advertising  0.37  10 

Administration  2.62  70 

Social  security  and  taxes  (except  income)  1.68  45 

Total  expenses  19.18  513 

Operating  profit  or  profit  before  depreciation  12. 17  325 

Depreciation  1.88  50 

Net  profit  before  federal  taxes  10.29  275 

Federal  taxes  5.61  150 

Balance  4.68  125 

Interest  on  invested  capital  0.94  25 

Net  profit  on  sales  3.74  100 

1  Erected  house  less  furniture  and  equipment  (range,  refrigerator,  water  heater,  and 

space  heater),  and  excluding  land,  foundation,  and  site  utilities.  Two-bedroom  house, 
24'  X  24',  three  sections. 

Source:  Estimates  by  TVA  which  were  reconciled  with  the  experience  of  several  firms 
having  contracts  for  production  of  these  houses. 


353 


On  Table  4  it  will  be  noted  that  factory  labor  costs  were  a  very 
small  part  of  the  total  package  cost  and  that  materials  represented  by 
far  the  biggest  item.  This  is  partly  due  to  the  fact  that  the  materials 
as  they  were  received  had  been  largely  cut  and  milled  to  size,  and 
the  factory  operations  were  chiefly  assembly  and  finishing.  It  can  also 
be  seen  that  factory  overhead  was  somewhat  greater  than  direct  labor 
costs,  but  it  is  necessary  to  consider  that  in  this  case  some  of  the  fac 
tory  overhead  was  expended  on  the  storage  and  handling  of  finished 
materials  and  equipments  which  were  included  in  the  package  sent 
to  the  dealer  and  should,  for  this  reason,  have  been  allocated  to  the 
dealer's  cost  sheets  rather  than  to  those  for  the  manufacturing  opera 
tion.  The  sales  expense  represented  only  the  prefabricator's  costs  in 
this  breakdown  and  did  not  include  expenditures  by  dealers. 

Table  6 

Cost  Breakdown  for  AIROH  House 

British  Temporary  Housing  Program  (1947  Estimates) 

Item  Per  Cent     Pounds  (£) 

Production 

Materials,  fixtures,  and  fittings  51.8  847 

Factory  fabrication  and  assembly  17.0  278 

Other  production  costs  2.7  44 

Factory  plant  and  equipment  2.6  43 
Transport 

Expenditure  on  vehicles,  spares,  and  repairs  1.5  25 

Haulage  2.6  43 

Grading,  utilities,  and  foundation  14.6  238 

Erection  3.3  53 

Contingencies  1.7  28 

Overhead  costs  2.2  36 


Total  100.0 

Less  net  residual  value  of  productive  assets 

£1,610 

Table  5  is  a  cost  breakdown  for  a  TVA  sectional  house.  The  house 
measured  24'  X  24',  had  two  bedrooms,  and  arrived  at  the  site  in 
three  sections.  The  figures  are  for  1943  and  are  based  on  estimates 
by  TVA  which  were  reconciled  with  the  experience  of  several  firms 
having  contracts  for  the  production  of  these  houses.  The  principal 
point  of  interest  here  is  the  extent  to  which  the  manufacture  of  the 
house  had  been  transferred  to  the  factory.  The  motive  behind  this 
was  probably  more  the  desire  to  reduce  site  labor  requirements  than 
it  was  economy.  Site  labor  had  to  be  kept  to  a  minimum  because  of 

354 


the  wartime  shortage  of  construction  labor,  because  of  the  desire  to 
reduce  the  number  of  people  and  the  confusion  at  the  site,  and  be 
cause  of  security  reasons,  since  about  5,000  of  these  sectional  houses 
were  built  at  Oak  Ridge,  Tenn.,  and  Hanford,  Wash.,  two  of  the 
atomic  energy  production  centers.  The  relatively  large  shipping  costs, 
about  8%,  were  due  to  the  fact  that  transporting  the  sectional  house 
involved  careful  handling  of  a  finished  product,  which  included  much 
empty  space,  over  relatively  large  distances  in  some  cases. 

Table  6  is  a  breakdown  for  the  British  AIROH  house,  a  sectional 
aluminum  structure  which  was  produced  in  large  quantities  in  aircraft 
plants  after  the  war.  The  figures  are  estimated  rather  than  official,  but 
they  serve  as  an  informative  basis  of  comparison  with  the  figures  for 
the  sectional  wood  TVA  house.  It  will  be  noted  at  once  that,  because 
this  house  is  sponsored  by  the  government,  advertising  and  selling  are 
not  items  of  cost. 


355 


II. 


Part 

Chapter 


MARKETING 


I.  Introduction 


The  marketing  aspects  of  any  industry  are  properly  defined  as  in 
cluding  "all  business  activities  involved  in  the  flow  of  goods  and  serv 
ices  from  physical  production  to  consumption/'  *  For  the  pref  abrica- 
tion  industry,  this  includes  the  determination  of  markets,  prices,  chan 
nels  of  distribution,  and  methods  of  sale;  and  the  procedures  used  in 
financing,  site  selection,  transportation,  erection,  and  servicing.  Many 
of  these  subjects  have  been  discussed  in  earlier  chapters,  for  market 
ing  considerations  have  an  obvious  influence  on  decisions  regarding 
production,  procurement,  design,  and  management,  although  the  ex 
tent  of  this  influence  has  not  always  been  recognized  in  the  industry. 

In  the  period  immediately  following  the  war,  the  breadth  and  im 
portance  of  marketing  problems  were  not  generally  appreciated.  Pro 
curement  and  production  problems  were  far  more  pressing,  and,  with 
the  demand  for  housing  running  at  the  highest  level  in  recent  history, 
it  was  easy  to  visualize  an  eager  line  of  customers,  checkbooks  in  hand, 
waiting  to  claim  the  houses  as  they  came  from  the  plant.  Few  of  the 
companies  in  the  field  had  had  any  experience  selling  prefabricated 
houses;  many  had  never  sold  houses  of  any  sort.  Furthermore  the 
industry  was  young,  the  war  had  been  won,  and  it  was  not  hard  to 
dismiss  as  gloomy  conservatism  the  warnings  of  those  who  had  learned 
about  marketing  the  hard  way  during  the  depression. 

During  the  period  of  the  survey,  the  marketing  lessons  were  gradu 
ally  being  learned.  Government  contracts  terminated,  and  bidding 
for  large  projects  began  to  mean  cutting  costs  and  profits  to  the  bone. 
High  hopes  engendered  in  the  days  of  the  Veterans'  Emergency  Hous 
ing  Program  began  to  dissolve,  and  slowly  the  real  bottleneck  was  lo 
cated—at  the  end  of  the  assembly  line.  Foster  Gunnison,  who  had 
always  placed  marketing  first  in  order  of  importance,  had  warned 
the  industry  in  1944: 

It  is  obvious  that  orders  must  flow  into  the  plant,  each  day,  at  the  same 
continuous  rate  the  houses  flow  off  the  conveyors.  .  .  .  The  investment  in 
a  mass-production  plant  is  so  great  that  it  will  only  pay-out  by  keeping  the 
plant  going  to  capacity  every  day.  To  provide  a  continuous  flow  of  orders, 
therefore,  becomes  the  most  important  problem  of  all.  Thus,  upon  the 

1  Harold  H.  Maynard  and  Theodore  N.  Beckman,  Principles  of  Marketing  ( 4th 
ed.,  New  York:  Ronald  Press,  1946),  p.  3. 

359 


method  of  distribution  and  sales  used,  depends  the  ultimate  success  or 
failure  of  the  industry  as  a  whole  and  each  company  within  it.2 

Nearly  ten  years  earlier,  John  Burchard  had  been  even  more  precise: 

The  focus  of  efforts  so  far  has  been  on  the  redesign  of  the  structure  of 
parts  of  the  house,  often  very  ingeniously.  But  the  trouble  with  these  ef 
forts  has  been  that  they  run  squarely  against  the  stone  wall  of  the  amount 
of  capital  required  to  bring  an  old  un-mass-produced  product  into  mass 
production  almost  over  night,  and  the  economies  proposed  are  available 
only  if  the  mass  production  is  achieved.  A  sounder  approach,  it  would 
seem  to  me,  might  be  made  by  regarding  the  problem  at  the  outset  as  one 
of  marketing.  After  marketing  success  with  a  semi-orthodox  product,  the 
economies  and  advantages  of  new  structures  might  be  incorporated.3 

Marketing  patterns  were  being  formed  at  the  time  of  the  survey, 
in  many  cases  very  elementary,  in  a  few  cases  more  advanced,  and 
the  rest  of  this  chapter  is  devoted  to  describing  these  patterns. 


II.  Markets 


A.  Market  Areas 


The  prefabricated  choice  of  market  areas  was  greatly  influenced 
by  the  type  of  product  he  wished  to  offer  and  by  the  manner  in  which 
he  wished  to  offer  it.  If  he  decided  to  make  a  complete  and  distinc 
tive  house,  bearing  his  trade  name,  he  would  usually  plan  to  sell  it 
either  in  large  urban  centers  in  direct  competition  with  the  operative 
builder,  or  in  rural  areas  where  there  were  fewer  problems  with  codes, 
labor  unions,  and  competitors.  If  he  preferred  to  make  a  factory 
package,  to  be  put  into  the  final  house  without  identification  of  the 
maker,  he  would  usually  plan  to  sell  it  either  to  large  speculative 
builders  in  the  cities  or  to  small  contractors  and  individuals  spread 
over  a  wide  area.  The  preference  of  the  prefabricators  with  refer 
ence  to  a  few  simple  classifications  of  market  areas,  and  the  reasons 
which  they  gave  for  their  choice,  are  summarized  below. 

2  Foster  Gunnison,  "The  Economics  of  Mass-Distribution  and  Mass-Sales  of 
Prefabricated  Homes,"  Prefabricated  Homes,  2  (February  1944),  23. 

3  Burchard,  "Prefabricated  Housing  and  Its  Marketing  Problems,"  p.  154. 

360 


T.  Metropolitan  Areas 

An  almost  exclusive  interest  in  the  metropolitan  areas,  roughly  de 
fined  as  those  having  populations  of  100,000  and  upwards,  was  ex 
pressed  by  25  companies.  On  statistical  grounds  alone  this  would 
have  been  a  good  choice,  since  census  figures  indicate  a  continuing 
trend  in  the  United  States  for  the  population  to  move  into  such  areas 
(and,  within  them,  to  move  outwards  from  the  built-up  centers  of 
cities ) .  Despite  the  fact  that  the  metropolitan  areas  had  a  somewhat 
smaller  proportion  of  single-family  houses  than  the  rest  of  the  country, 
they  probably  contained  almost  as  large  a  total  number  of  such 
houses.  While  the  built-up  centers  were  characterized  by  high  land 
costs  and  stringent  building  restrictions,  even  there  certain  prefabri- 
cators  felt  they  might  have  advantages  to  offer.  For  example,  the 
fireproof  house  built  by  Fabcrete  of  America,  Inc.,  could  be  erected 
in  districts  from  which  wood  frame  houses  were  excluded  in  the 
interests  of  fire  prevention. 

Most  of  these  25  companies,  however,  were  interested  in  the  sub 
urban  fringe,  which  offered  such  attractive  features  as  wide  selection 
of  building  land  at  suitable  price  relatively  close  to  a  concentrated 
demand,  relatively  broad  range  of  demand,  convenience  of  transporta 
tion,  likelihood  of  many  vacant  lots  already  provided  with  streets  and 
utilities,  and  the  best  general  prospects  for  large  projects,  whether  to 
be  built  for  sale  or  for  rental  investment.  Particularly  for  those  who 
produced  unconventional  houses,  the  concentration  within  metropoli 
tan  areas  of  young  business  and  professional  families  and  of  families 
of  relatively  high  incomes  was  a  decided  advantage. 


2.  Smaller  Urban  Areas 

More  desirable  to  the  average  prefabricator,  despite  the  advantages 
of  metropolitan  areas,  were  the  smaller  urban  areas,  where  the  popu 
lations  ranged  from  2,500  (the  smallest  urban  area  in  census  compu 
tations)  to  100,000.  In  all,  52  companies  expressed  a  preference  for 
such  market  areas,  with  the  major  interest  in  the  more  populous  areas 
within  this  range.  The  prefabricators  mentioned  several  special  ad 
vantages  in  such  areas.  They  were  generally  considered  to  have 
lower  wage  scales  and  other  operating  costs;  this  made  them  low-cost 
plant  locations,  and  low  cost  meant  broad  marketing  advantages. 
While  the  overall  demand  was  not  so  large  as  in  a  metropolitan  area, 

361 


it  was  nevertheless  adequate  in  view  of  the  scale  of  operations  of 
the  average  prefabricator,  as  was  the  available  supply  of  building 
sites.  The  costs  of  improving  the  land  were  not  so  great  in  smaller 
cities,  where  standards  were  usually  lower,  development  less  inten 
sive,  and  wages  and  costs  lower.  Taxes  almost  always  were  lower  in 
smaller  cities  than  in  metropolitan  centers,  although  metropolitan 
suburbs  might  compete  on  this  score.  It  was  usually  considered 
easier  to  establish  friendly  relations  with  trade  unions,  with  the  vari 
ous  municipal  departments,  with  bankers,  and  with  potential  cus 
tomers  in  the  smaller  cities.  The  advantages  of  speed  and  efficiency 
offered  by  a  dealer  in  prefabricated  houses  were  found  to  be  rela 
tively  more  apparent  in  the  smaller  cities  where  large-scale  builders 
were  rare  and  therefore  the  dealer  had  a  relatively  better  risk  in  the 
use  of  his  capital.  And,  finally,  the  aggregate  of  orders  flowing  in 
from  a  diversified  selection  of  smaller  cities  where  these  favorable 
conditions  might  be  found  was  considered  to  yield  a  steadier  rate  of 
production  than  would  be  the  case  with  orders  flowing  from  any  one 
metropolitan  area. 

In  the  very  small  urban  areas  these  arguments  lost  some  of  their 
force.  The  tendency  of  the  population  to  move  towards  the  cities 
meant  that  demand  for  houses  was  often  less  in  the  smaller  towns;  the 
inhabitants  were  noticeably  more  conservative  in  their  tastes  and  in 
their  manner  of  doing  business;  and  because  the  prefabrication  plant 
was  itself  likely  to  be  located  near  a  somewhat  larger  city,  transporta 
tion  costs  were  often  higher. 


3.  Rural  Non-Farm  Areas 

A  preference  for  the  rural  non-farm  area,  defined  as  including  com 
munities  of  less  than  2,500  population  which  contain  little  land  in 
farm  uses,  was  expressed  by  22  companies.  From  census  figures  this 
would  seem  to  be  by  far  the  best  market  for  prefabricators,  since 
almost  as  many  total  single-family  dwelling  units  are  being  erected  in 
rural  non-farm  areas  as  in  urban  areas.4  There  was  a  very  real  feel 
ing  on  the  part  of  many  of  the  prefabricators  that  this  constituted 
their  best  market.  John  Richardson,  whose  experience  lies  in  financ 
ing  and  sales,  told  those  attending  the  December  1947  PHMI  Winter 
Meeting  that  in  his  opinion  the  "market  is  75%  in  rural  areas  and  small 

*  Construction,  U.  S.  Bureau  of  Labor  Statistics  (January  1948),  p.  4. 

362 


towns,"  and  C.  W.  Farrier,  formerly  head  of  the  Technical  Division 
of  NHA  and  more  recently  research  director  for  Gunnison  Homes, 
earlier  had  said  almost  precisely  the  same  thing.5  The  advantages 
of  such  areas  lay  in  the  possibility  of  erecting  a  good-quality  house 
with  very  reduced  site  labor  requirements  on  a  site  far  removed  from 
the  nearest  skilled  conventional  builder.  Frequently  houses  designed 
for  these  areas  would  have  less  costly  finish  and  equipment,  although 
the  prefabricator  might  well  attempt  to  include  within  his  package 
as  much  as  possible  of  the  necessary  materials  and  equipment.  Fre 
quently,  also,  the  houses  were  to  be  designed  for  minimum  site  im 
provement  ( probably  without  a  basement ) ,  and  for  erection  processes 
involving  as  little  special  equipment  and  skilled  labor  as  possible. 
The  design  of  the  house  itself  could  be  highly  standardized  since  it 
would  not  be  frequently  reproduced  within  the  area.  And  perhaps 
the  largest  single  factor  favoring  the  rural  non-farm  areas  was  the 
fact  that  conventional  builders  in  such  areas  were  at  the  very  end 
of  the  normal  materials  distribution  channels.  This  gave  the  prefab 
ricator,  with  his  greater  buying  power  and  speed,  a  very  decided  ad 
vantage.  Admittedly,  the  establishment  of  suitable  sales  methods  and 
distribution  forces  to  reach  so  scattered  a  market  offered  a  difficult 
problem,  and  it  was  one  which  no  prefabricator  had  fully  solved  at 
the  time  of  the  survey,  although  many  were  keenly  interested  in  the 
possibilities  offered  by  so  broad  and  stable  a  potential  market. 


4.  Rural  Areas 

Eleven  companies  indicated  a  preference  for  rural  areas  as  a 
market  for  their  houses,  such  areas  being  defined  as  those  devoted 
primarily  to  farming.  Most  of  the  companies  featured  houses  which 
could  be  erected  by  the  farmer  himself,  who  represented  one  of  the 
few  groups  in  the  consumer  population  generally  capable  of  doing  an 
efficient  job  of  erection.  Many  of  these  farm  cottages  are  highly 
standardized  in  design,  the  usual  theories  about  the  need  of  apparent 
variation  being  dispensed  with  in  view  of  the  wide  scattering  of  pur 
chasers.  Frequently  companies  operating  in  rural  areas  also  prefab 
ricated  farm  utility  buildings;  indeed  many  entered  upon  the  prefab- 
rication  of  houses  from  that  field,  for  example,  Pre-Fab  Industries 
Corporation  and  Economy  Portable  Housing  Company. 

5C.  W.  Farrier,  "Prefabrication  in  Post-War  Housebuilding,"  Prefabricated 
Homes,  2  (February  1944),  11. 

363 


A  specialized  form  of  the  rural  market  was  the  market  for  recrea 
tional  cottages,  sought  after  by  an  increasing  number  of  prefabricators 
after  the  lifting  of  the  restrictions  of  the  Veterans'  Emergency  Hous 
ing  Program.  Hodgson,  probably  the  oldest  continuing  prefabricator 
in  the  business,  had  been  making  a  large  share  of  its  sales  in  this 
market  since  1892.  Here  designs  commonly  varied  widely  with  de 
mand,  and  houses  could  be  greatly  simplified  by  the  temporary  and 
usually  warm-weather  nature  of  their  intended  use.  Structurally,  the 
houses  were  generally  panelized  into  sections  capable  of  being  easily 
manhandled,  and  the  erection  system  was  usually  simple  enough  to 
permit  the  use  of  unskilled  labor  on  rather  rough  and  isolated  sites. 


B.  Special  Market  Types 

Prefabricators  had  varying  preferences  with  regard  to  channels  of 
distribution;  in  the  selection  of  these  channels,  they  were  often  also 
making  a  choice  between  two  broad  types  of  market:  that  in  which 
distinctive  houses,  given  a  sort  of  "brand  name"  by  advertising  and 
promotional  efforts,  were  sold  to  the  public;  and  that  in  which  special 
ized  house  packages,  varying  according  to  the  circumstances  involved 
in  the  order,  were  sold  to  the  dealer  or  builder  who  offered  them  to 
the  public  without  announcement  of  the  identity  of  the  fabricator 
of  the  basic  package.  Of  the  former,  Lustron  was  a  good  example, 
and  of  the  latter,  American  Houses.  In  addition  to  this  basic  distinc 
tion  in  market  approach,  several  special  types  of  market  deserve 
further  discussion. 


1.  Industrial  Markets 

At  least  15  companies  concentrated  a  major  part  of  their  efforts 
on  selling  large  groups  of  houses  to  industries  building  for  their  em 
ployees.  This  was  a  natural  outgrowth  of  the  war  period,  during 
which  sales  had  been  made  to  government  agencies  in  large  quantities, 
and  of  the  period  of  boom  construction  immediately  following  the 
war,  when  new  housing  was  needed  near  new  plant  facilities.  It 
was  easy  for  the  prefabricators  to  shift  over  from  large  government 
orders  to  large  industrial  orders.  American  Houses  sold  units  to  the 

364 


builders  of  several  such  projects,  among  them  one  for  250  families 
in  Manville,  N.  J.,  to  house  employees  of  a  Johns-Manville  plant. 
U.  S.  Homes  developed  special  low-cost  designs  adapted  to  the  needs 
of  southward-migrating  textile  companies.  Nygaard  Builders,  Inc., 
developed  for  a  Pittsburgh  contractor  a  unit  designed  for  housing  in 
coal-mining  communities.  With  the  decline  in  postwar  industrial  ex 
pansion  and  the  general  leveling-off  of  business  activity,  this  market 
was  showing  signs  of  shrinking,  but  during  the  period  of  the  survey 
it  still  was  a  significant  factor  in  the  plans  of  these  prefabricators. 


2.  Export  Markets 

Among  the  companies  interviewed,  six  indicated  that  they  had 
shipped  houses  outside  the  continental  limits  of  the  United  States, 
and  seven  more  said  that  they  were  making  definite  plans  in  that 
direction.  Other  companies  expressed  interest,  but  had  no  plans  at 
that  time.  Aside  from  the  lend-lease  program,6  however,  actual  sales 
in  foreign  markets  had  been  small,  and  such  sales  as  there  were  came 
about  as  the  result  of  special  circumstances  rather  than  any  serious 
demand  on  the  part  of  foreign  consumers.7  This  was,  of  course, 
partly  the  result  of  the  dollar  shortages  in  most  of  the  potential  con 
sumer  countries,  but  partly  also  it  reflected  the  difficulties  and  costs 
inherent  in  purchasing  houses  in  the  United  States  and  shipping  them 
abroad  for  erection  and  use  under  what  often  were  very  unfamiliar 
conditions.  Companies  seriously  interested  in  the  export  market  soon 
realized  that  special  models,  involving  a  considerable  degree  of  re 
design  and  the  changing  of  dies  and  jigs,  would  be  required,  and  that 
in  most  cases  the  redesign  would  have  to  be  in  the  direction  of  simpli 
fication. 

Transportation  costs,  when  added  to  the  high  costs  of  production 
in  the  United  States,  constituted  a  serious  difficulty.  Unless  extra 
handling  and  shipping  costs  were  to  be  incurred,  furthermore,  units 
would  have  to  be  designed  so  as  to  permit  their  being  broken  down 
for  shipment  into  relatively  light  and  small  packages. 

For  a  time,  during  the  worst  of  the  materials  shortages,  government 
quotas  were  a  further  limitation  on  the  export  business.  Quotas  under 
the  Second  Decontrol  Act,  for  instance,  lumped  prefabricated  wooden 

6  Chapter  2,  p.  60. 

7  Office  of  International  Inquiries,  HHFA,  in  an  interview  June  4,  1948. 

365 


houses  with  other  wood  mill  products,  and  the  unit  limits  were  set  as 
follows: 

Year  Quota 

1946  Closed.    Each  applicant  examined  individually. 

1947  1,150 

1948  3,440 

However,  such  were  the  general  difficulties  that  even  these  limited 
quotas  were  never  filled.  For  example,  during  1948  the  quota  was 
3,440  houses,  export  licenses  were  issued  for  only  1,697,  and  only  330 
were  actually  shipped  abroad.  These  quotas  were  more  recently 
entirely  lifted,  and  it  would  have  been  possible  to  develop  a  good 
export  business  under  certain  conditions  if  more  foreign  countries 
had  favorable  dollar  balances.  As  it  was,  the  new  country  of  Israel 
was  nearly  the  only  one  able  to  devote  dollars  to  housing,  and  Israel 
could  not  afford  to  spend  its  dollars  on  prefabricated  houses  designed 
and  equipped  for  living  patterns  in  the  United  States. 

More  likely  to  be  shipped  abroad  have  been  machinery,  materials, 
techniques,  and  skilled  technicians.  Six  of  the  companies  interviewed 
had  exported  their  "pattern  of  operations"  in  whole  or  in  part.  This 
was  particularly  true  of  the  sponsors  of  systems  for  the  production 
of  concrete  houses.  Wallace  Neff,  for  example,  reported  for  Airform 
Construction  a  Mexican  licensee  building  schools  in  Mexico  City  and 
houses  in  Acapulco,  a  Brazilian  licensee  with  houses  under  construc 
tion,  and  contracts  or  negotiations  for  contracts  under  way  in  Vene 
zuela,  South  Africa,  India,  Egypt,  Morocco,  Spain,  and  Portugal.8 
Others  also  were  involved  in  this  way:  Precision-Built  Homes  had  a 
licensee  in  Canada  and  was  considering  arrangements  for  others  in 
South  America;  Soule  Steel  had  developed  a  special  house  for  the 
Hawaiian  market,  only  the  steel  parts  of  which  it  planned  to  export. 

It  seemed  likely  at  the  time  of  the  survey  that  the  major  purchasers 
of  actual  houses  exported  from  the  country  were  likely  to  continue 
to  be  United  States  companies  operating  abroad.  For  example,  in 
1947,  all  the  275  wood  prefabricated  houses  exported  had  such  desti 
nations:  180  went  to  a  United  States  business  firm  in  the  Dominican 
Republic,  40  to  the  Saudi  Arabia  Oil  Company,  and  55  to  other  identi 
fiable  commercial  customers. 

8  Interview  in  Los  Angeles,  Calif.,  April  16,  1948. 


366 


III.  Pricing  Policies 


*  Some  honest  confusion  has  usually  attended  any  discussion  of  the 
selling  price  of  prefabricated  homes,  for  prefabricators  offered  many 
different  kinds  of  prices.  The  lowest  possible  quotation  was  for  a 
house  package  f.o.b.  factory,  but  some  quoted  the  cost  of  the  house 
package  plus  transportation  to  the  site.  More  commonly  it  was  the 
erected  price,  less  the  cost  of  the  land,  although  in  a  few  cases  the 
price  included  the  land  upon  which  the  house  was  erected.  In  nearly 
all  cases,  some  extra  features  were  included  in  the  price,  such  as 
built-in  furniture,  completely  installed  bathrooms,  or  kitchen  ap 
pliances. 

The  pricing  structure  can  conveniently  be  examined  in  terms  of  the 
experiences  of  12  companies  that  were  studied  in  1947  by  the 
Flanders  Committee.9  Cost  data  from  the  report  of  that  Committee 
were  given  in  detail  in  the  chapter  on  production;  selected  data  are 
reproduced  here,  with  the  prices  of  all  the  companies  averaged  to 
gether  to  give  a  representative  picture.  Using  the  total  cost  of  the 
erected  house,  less  cost  of  land,  as  100%,  the  following  relationships 
were  significant: 

Average  house  package  $3 , 460 .67  58 . 34% 

Average  cost  of  erecting  the  house        2 , 448 .27  41 . 66% 


Total  cost,  less  land  $5,908.94  100.00% 

Looking  further  into  the  erection  costs,  it  is  found  that  $162.63,  or 
2.78%,  was  made  up  of  freight  and  delivery  costs.  A  combined  profit 
was  taken  on  the  package  and  erection  of  $865.55,  or  14.40%  of  the 
selling  price.  However,  $350.70,  or  5.92%  of  the  selling  price,  repre 
sented  profit  attached  to  the  house  package,  and  thus  went  to  the 
manufacturer. 

Obviously,  the  price  to  the  ultimate  consumer  was  far  more  than 
just  the  house  package  cost.  That,  nevertheless,  represented  a  feas 
ible  starting  point  for  an  examination  of  prices  during  the  survey 
conducted  by  the  Bemis  Foundation.  In  the  winter  and  spring  of 
1946-1947,  54  companies  offered  house  packages  at  an  average  price 
of  $4.02  per  square  foot.  The  average  erected  price  of  these  houses, 
usually  as  quoted  by  them,  was  $8.45  per  square  foot,  exclusive  of 

9  High  Cost  of  Housing,  p.  150. 

367 


the  cost  of  land,  and  the  average  size  was  762  sq.  ft.  The  average 
selling  price  which  resulted,  $6,439,  was  probably  lower  than  the 
typical  selling  price  for  the  industry,  because  many  of  the  54  com 
panies  surveyed  tended  to  have  lower  than  average  prices,  and  geo 
graphic  variations  in  costs  and  in  quality  standards  made  a  difference. 
The  period  studied  was  one  of  advancing  prices,  so  that  figures  more 
recent  than  these  would  be  considerably  higher  for  comparable 
houses. 

Further  information  on  selling  prices  is  furnished  by  a  PHMI  sur 
vey  of  its  membership  made  in  1947.  The  median  price  for  prefabri 
cated  houses  was  then  found  to  be  $7,000,  exclusive  of  land,  with 
prices  ranging  from  $5,100  to  $8,000.  The  most  common  size  of 
house  was  24'  X  32',  or  768  sq.  ft. 

By  way  of  comparison,  the  average  construction  cost  per  unit  of 
all  single-family  dwelling  units  started  in  the  country  was  $5,525  in 
1946,  $6,750  in  1947,  and  $7,850  in  1948.10  It  should  be  emphasized 
that  these  figures,  while  including  an  allowance  for  builder's  profit, 
do  not  include  the  cost  of  land;  they  represent  only  construction  costs 
and  not  selling  prices. 

In  general  the  price  policy  of  a  house  manufacturer  seems  to  have 
been  determined  by  applying  to  his  production  costs  an  average 
markup  selected  to  yield  a  reasonable  profit  for  him.  There  was  very 
little  tendency  on  the  part  of  the  manufacturer  to  charge  a  price  out 
of  line  with  a  fair  return;  the  realization  of  the  need  for  mass  sales 
in  order  to  maintain  steady  production  seems  to  have  served  as  a 
curb  on  his  desire  for  immediate  profits. 

The  price  policy  of  dealers  generally  was  a  somewhat  different 
matter.  Dealers  followed  no  single  pattern,  but  a  large  number  were 
inclined  to  take  full  advantage  of  the  seller's  market  then  prevailing, 
with  little  thought  to  future  sales  volume.  During  the  period  when 
price  control  was  in  effect,  the  OPA  allowed  a  10%  dealer's  markup 
on  the  cost  of  the  house  package.  Prefabricated  Homes  magazine, 
stating  the  case  for  a  higher  markup,  estimated  that  overhead  ex 
penses  would  amount  to  7%  of  the  selling  price.11  If  a  7-10%  net  profit 
to  the  dealer  were  added  to  this,  the  resulting  markup  would  be 
around  15%.  Those  companies  which  attempted  to  limit  the  dealer's 
profit  usually  allowed  a  markup  of  15-20%  of  the  sales  price.  Most 
franchises,  however,  gave  the  dealer  the  authority  to  set  his  own  sell 
ing  price;  in  most  cases  they  had  to,  if  for  no  other  reason  than  varia- 

10  Housing  Statistics,  Housing  and  Home  Finance  Agency  (May  1949),  p.  4. 
Bureau  of  Labor  Statistics  figures. 

"  Prefabricated  Homes,  6  (May  1946),  9. 

368 


tion  in  local  land  and  improvement  costs  and  wage  rates.  Many 
companies  felt  that  better  control  of  dealer  prices  in  the  future  was 
essential  to  the  industry,  since  one  of  the  purposes  of  prefabrication 
was  to  provide  the  ultimate  consumer  with  housing  as  good  as  or 
better  than  conventionally  built  structures,  at  a  lower  price. 

The  nature  of  the  competition  offered  by  conventional  builders  and 
other  prefabricators  determined  to  some  degree  the  dealer's  price 
policy,  especially  when  dealers  were  located  in  areas  where  competi 
tion  for  the  housing  customer  was  becoming  more  severe.  In  par 
ticular,  those  dealers  handling  a  fairly  conventional  house  seemed  to 
follow  the  price  leadership  of  the  operative  builders  in  the  area. 

An  exception  to  the  general  price  averages  was  found  in  the  case 
of  14  companies  which  concentrated  on  the  higher  price  and  more  or 
less  custom-design  market,  and  commonly  made  use  of  modular  panels 
or  job-lot  order  modular  component  production  systems.  Sometimes 
the  theory  of  such  prefabricators,  as  presented  by  George  Fred  Keck, 
designer  of  Green's  Ready-Built  solar  house,  was  to  build  for  a  quality 
market,  relying  on  the  fact  that  the  factory  can  put  on  better  finish 
and  detailing  than  can  be  reproduced  by  a  local  building  contractor 
at  anything  like  comparable  cost.  A  greater  value,  rather  than  a  lower 
delivered  cost,  was  the  object,  and  it  was  hoped  that,  when  this 
market  was  established  and  production  costs  cut,  still  more  equipment 
and  better  value  would  be  added  instead  of  reducing  prices  for  the 
consumer.  Presumably,  such  houses  would  be  particularly  well  de 
signed  to  appeal  to  the  income  group  which  might  ordinarily  hope  to 
have  a  very  small  house  hand-tailored  by  an  architect.  With  this 
quality  market  established,  such  a  company  might  then  consider 
bringing  out  a  lower-priced  model  for  a  broader  market,  relying  on 
the  advertising  appeal  gained  by  its  more  expensive  models. 

On  the  other  hand,  a  few  companies  were  interested  in  producing 
austere  shelter  in  the  very  low  price  ranges.  For  example,  the  Texas 
Housing  Co.  was  selling  its  "Homette,"  a  16'  X  16'  plywood  cabin, 
for  $463.24,  knocked  down,  early  in  1947  (see  Figure  44).  The 
Wingfoot  house,  an  expandable  trailer  with  an  area  of  256  sq.  ft., 
was  being  sold  for  as  little  as  $3,000,  ready  for  occupancy.  Somewhat 
above  this  level,  many  prefabricators  were  starting  to  manufacture 
houses  of  standard  size  and  equipment  priced  at  $6,000  or  less,  erected, 
but  excluding  the  price  of  the  land.  These  structures  had  no  base 
ments,  but  standards  of  design,  material,  and  construction  were  at 
least  as  good  as  those  of  similarly  priced  conventional  houses.  In 
1948  National  Homes  Corporation  brought  out  a  two-bedroom  house 
to  sell  for  $2,089  f.o.b.  the  plant.  With  added  costs  of  erection,  wir- 

369 


ing,  plumbing,  etc.,  the  two-bedroom  model  sold  complete  with  lot 
for  only  $5,750,  and  could  be  purchased  with  a  $300  down  payment 
and  monthly  payments  of  $34.87.  There  was  also  a  three-bedroom 
model  priced  with  lot  at  $6,150  (see  Figure  46). 

Each  model  had  a  living  room,  a  bath,  a  utility  room,  and  a  kitchen 
equipped  with  built-in  cabinets,  counter  sink,  and  a  laundry  tray. 
Included  with  the  house  were  an  oil  heater  in  the  living  room  and  an 
automatic  water  heater  in  the  utility  room.  Plywood  was  used  for 
the  exterior  finish,  and  inside  walls  were  of  waterproof,  crackproof, 
room-size  Upson  board,  used  in  natural  finish,  painted,  or  papered. 
The  houses  were  erected  on  an  insulated  concrete  floor  with  no  base 
ment  and  with  no  doors  on  the  bedroom  closets.12 

After  the  initiation  of  the  Economy  House  Program  by  the  Hous 
ing  and  Home  Finance  Agency  in  cooperation  with  the  building  in 
dustry,  most  of  the  other  companies  announced  special  low-price 
models  (see  Figure  47).  One,  for  example,  designed  by  General 
Industries,  Inc.,  to  sell  in  the  $6,000  bracket,  was  described  by  PHMI 
as  follows:  , 

This  economy  home  is  a  ...  one  story  model  with  two  bedrooms,  liv 
ing  room  with  dining  area,  kitchen,  bath  and  a  utility  room,  with  additional 
storage  room  in  the  attic  space.  It  is  24'  3"  square,  of  stressed-skin  plywood 
construction  and  is  erected  on  a  concrete  slab.  The  inside  walls  are  finished 
with  wall  paper  or  may  be  painted.  .  .  .  The  buyer  is  offered  several 
choices  of  exterior  finish. 

Approved  by  the  FHA  for  mortgage  insurance,  the  houses  are  being 
financed  under  the  new  provision  of  the  Housing  Act  of  1948  authorizing 
government-insured  95%  mortgages  on  owner-occupant  homes  where  such 
loans  do  not  exceed  $6,000.18 

On  the  whole,  however,  it  is  fair  to  say  that  the  prefabricated  hous 
ing  industry  was  only  beginning  to  produce  houses  at  a  low  cost  for 
the  mass  market.  Indeed,  many  prefabricators  did  not  feel  it  should 
try  to  do  so.  One  writer  stated  even  before  the  postwar  rise  in  prices 
that  new  houses  should  be  priced  from  $6,000  to  $8,000  rather  than 
from  $2,000  to  $4,000,  because  the  effective  buying  power  resided 
in  the  seven  or  eight  million  families  who  represented  the  upper  20- 

12  National  Homes  estimated  that  90%  of  the  25  houses  per  day  produced 
throughout  most  of  1949  were  these  "thrift  homes."    Many  features  of  equipment 
and  finish  have  been  added  to  recent  models  without  increase  in  price. 

13  PHMI  Washington  News  Letter,  September  24,  1948,  p.  3.    By  the  time  of 
the  PHMI  Fall  Meeting  at  Winnipeg,  October  1949,  practically  all  member  com 
panies  had  come  out  with  "economy"  or  "thrift"  homes,  and  such  homes  repre 
sented  75-80%  of  total  production  in  several  cases. 

370 


25%  of  the  income  group.14  And  the  $6,000  house  of  1946  would  cost 
close  to  $8,000  in  1948.  Many  outside  the  field  felt  that  undue  concen 
tration  on  cost  was  producing  houses  of  dangerously  low  space  stand 
ards. 

A  few  shared  the  feeling,  best  expressed  by  Carl  Strandlund  of 
Lustron,  that  it  could  not  be  expected  that  a  family  in  the  low-income 
group  would  be  happy  to  invest  all  its  resources  in  what  was  loudly 
proclaimed  as  a  bare  minimum  house;  it  would  prefer  to  pay  a  little 
more  and  get  some  extras— some  genuine  "quality"  features— that 
would  give  a  real  pride  of  ownership.  This  feeling  led  Strandlund 
to  invest  money  in  top-notch  architectural  services  for  the  overall 
improvement  of  the  Lustron  house  in  future  models,  and  it  also  was 
behind  the  production,  in  1950,  of  a  three-bedroom  model  containing 
1,209  sq.  ft.,  and  of  garages,  for  one  or  two  cars,  which  could  be  con 
nected  to  the  houses  by  breeze  ways. 

On  the  other  hand,  the  market  pressure  was  such  that  Lustron,  too, 
was  prepared  just  before  its  failure  to  bring  out  an  economy  line. 
The  Lustron  Newport  homes  took  full  advantage  of  standard  parts, 
running  the  regular  roof  trusses  across  the  long  dimension  of  the 
house  to  avoid  the  production  of  new  structural  members.  There  was 
to  be  a  two-bedroom  model  containing  713  sq.  ft.  and  a  three-bed 
room  model  containing  961  sq.  ft.  at  prices  competitive  with  the 
economy  lines  which  made  up  almost  the  entire  output  of  Lustron's 
competitors. 

Another  point  of  view  was  expressed  by  William  K.  Wittausch: 

Even  though  families  move  in  order  to  improve  their  housing  condi 
tions,  they  need  by  no  means  move  into  new  houses  as  evidenced  by  many 
millions  of  families  who  today  live  in  houses  which  were  not  newly  built 
for  them  but  which  are  better  than  the  houses  they  left.  That  is  why  the 
housing  needs  of  millions  of  families,  especially  in  the  low-income  group, 
do  not  necessarily  represent  a  vast  potential  market  for  new,  low-price, 
mass-produced  houses. 

.  .  .  Whether  new  or  old,  the  quality  of  housing  a  family  is  able  to 
occupy  depends  almost  exclusively  on  its  income.  ...  it  is  only  natural 
that  the  higher  income  families  move  into  newer  and  more  desirable  houses 
first,  with  the  families  that  cannot  afford  the  pleasure  of  moving  into  a 
fresh,  new  house  moving  into  the  older  and  less  attractive  existing  dwell 
ings  left  by  those  who  move  out.  New  prefabricated  houses  like  other 
new  houses  automatically  command  the  same  premium  for  freshness  re 
gardless  of  the  price  group  in  which  they  are  offered.  It  would  appear, 
therefore,  to  be  more  advantageous  to  prefabrication  if  the  current  em- 

14  Neal  MacGiehan,  "The  House  for  the  Mass  Market,"  Prefabricated  Homes, 
5  (February  1945),  16-7. 

371 


phasis  on  producing  low-cost  houses  rather  than  on  putting  higher  value 
into  houses  relative  to  other  new  houses  were  to  be  reversed.15 

Other  prefabricators  have  been  frank  to  state  that  the  industry 
cannot  produce  new  homes  for  the  lowest-income  group,16  and  that  it 
should  recognize  the  need  of  public  housing  for  that  group  and  the 
related  possibility  of  a  firm  government  housing  policy  to  which  pre 
fabricators  might  adjust  intelligent  plans  for  operation  under  settled 
conditions  over  a  long  period.17 

It  is  not  the  province  of  this  discussion  to  attempt  to  find  a  method 
of  meeting  the  need  for  really  low-cost  housing  for  the  low-income 
groups.  The  survey  indicated  that  as  yet  the  prefabricated  housing 
industry  had  not  come  up  with  the  solution  to  this  problem.  But  the 
problem  was  recognized,  and  efforts  were  being  made  by  most  pre 
fabricators  to  lower  costs.  In  the  back  of  their  minds  seemed  to  be 
the  hope  of  capturing  the  mass  market  with  a  house  that  cost  no  more 
than  present  secondhand  houses,  and  yet  was  superior  to  them  in  most 
respects. 


IV.  Channels  of  Distribution 


The  pattern  of  handling  goods  between  production  and  consump 
tion,  the  channel  of  distribution,  is  determined  by  the  system  of  hand 
ling  and  storing  the  components,  the  method  chosen  for  moving  the 

15  William  K.  Wittausch,  "Marketing  Prefabricated  Houses,"  Harvard  Business 
Review,  XXVI  (November  1948),  696-7. 

16  It  should  be  added  that  several  prefabricators  believed,  with  Fred  Gentieu 
of  Plainfield  Lumber  &  Supply  Co.,  that  they  could  reach  the  lower  price  ranges 
only  in  units  other  than  single-family  detached  houses,  that  is,  in  row  house  or 
apartment  units. 

17  While  the  industry  has  been  officially  opposed  to  individual  public  housing 
bills  in  the  past,  such  views  as  this  have  been  expressed  by  some  of  its  most 
thoughtful  members.     In  his  address  to  the  PHMI  membership  in  December 
1947,  John  C.  Taylor,  Jr.,  President,  American  Houses,  Inc.,  said:  "The  people 
in  this  country  are  going  to  be  adequately  housed,  and  if  private  industry  does 
not  supply  this  housing,  it  is  going  to  be  supplied  through  Government  subsidy. 
.  .  .  The  majority  of  you  do  not  like  subsidized  housing  any  more  than  I  do, 
but  yet,  if  we  are  really  true  to  ourselves  and  will  bring  our  innermost  convic 
tions  to  the  surface,  we  know  that  that  statement  is  true/' 

372 


goods  at  low  cost,  and  the  middlemen  selected.  No  single  system  of 
distributing  houses  was  common  to  all  prefabricators,  and  several 
companies  employed  more  than  one  channel. 


A.  Factory  Direct  to  Consumer 


From  factory  to  consumer  is  the  most  direct  method  of  distribution. 
In  some  cases  manufacturers  employing  this  channel  made  the  erec 
tion  of  the  house  the  consumer's  responsibility,  while  in  others  the 
manufacturer  himself  took  care  of  the  erection. 


1.  Erection  by  Purchaser 

Only  one  company  sold  all  its  houses  for  erection  by  the  purchaser 
himself,  but  19  companies  sold  part  of  their  output  for  such  erection. 
The  simplicity  of  this  distribution  scheme  appealed  most  often  to  the 
newer  companies,  especially  those  on  the  West  Coast.  However, 
while  it  is  true  that  such  a  scheme  was  simple,  it  often  involved  the 
drawback  of  a  specialized  or  limited  market.  Financing  requirements, 
and  the  small  number  of  customers  willing  to  be  responsible  for  erect 
ing  a  full-size  house,  were  the  chief  limiting  factors.  The  FHA  was 
reluctant  to  approve  loans  based  on  purchaser  erection,  and  so  this 
scheme  usually  was  limited  to  companies  offering  non-FHA  minimal 
units.  Allied  Building  Credits  was  willing  for  a  while  to  grant  loans  at 
high  interest  rates  on  such  unpredictable  risks,  but  this  specialized 
financing  firm  soon  became  inactive  in  this  field. 

Immediately  after  World  War  II  a  large  number  of  such  units 
were  produced  as  prefabricated  garages.  These  garages,  usually 
two-car  size,  were  purchased  by  veterans  in  desperate  need  of  hous 
ing.  Nicoll  and  Co.  sold  20'  X  24'  panelized  cottage  shells  for  $792. 
The  John  L.  Hudson  Co.  produced  as  many  as  80  garages  a  day, 
probably  50%  of  them  used  as  dwellings. 

While  only  a  small  percentage  of  the  total  housing  market  was  will 
ing  to  take  the  responsibility  for  erection  in  return  for  potential  sav 
ings  in  cost,  it  seemed  likely  that  there  would  always  be  some  who 
would  prefer  this  method.  These  purchasers  liked  the  convenience 
of  buying  most  of  the  materials  for  a  house  in  one  package,  and  were 
glad  of  the  chance  to  jeduce  cash  outlay  by  contributing  their  own 

373 


labor.  Most  of  these  purchasers  were  farmers,  veterans,  and  build 
ing  tradesmen,  often  operating  within  the  framework  of  a  coopera 
tive.  Some,  however,  like  the  purchasers  of  vacation  cottages,  were 
interested  more  in  the  convenience  of  getting  delivery  of  a  unit  of 
known  quality  at  a  remote  site,  and  in  shortening  construction  time, 
and  they  were  not  likely  to  realize  substantial  cost  savings. 

Within  the  industry,  it  was  generally  considered  risky  to  sell  units 
direct  to  private  owners  for  erection,  and  there  was  a  growing  senti 
ment  that  the  prefabricator  should  assume  the  responsibility  for  see 
ing  that  the  agent  of  erection  performed  the  building  operation  in  a 
satisfactory  manner.  Unless  the  house  were  so  designed  that  erection 
became  nearly  as  simple  as  connecting  up  a  trailer,  many  prefabri- 
cators  felt  that  savings  inherent  in  good  organization  of  site  work 
might  well  be  lost  by  purchaser  erection.  One  prefabricator  stated: 

The  prefabricator  who  will  stay  in  business  will  furnish  a  complete 
house,  key  in  door,  at  a  fixed  price,  and  will  be  responsible  for  erection 
and  finishing.  The  days  of  shanty  jobs  are  over;  the  days  of  shell  building 
are  drawing  to  a  close.18 

1  In  two  different  patterns,  however,  this  channel  of  distribution  was 
well  established.  The  precut  house,  as  produced  by  Aladdin  and 
many  others,19  typically  was  distributed  in  this  manner,  and  had 
been  for  40  years.  Indeed,  Aladdin  had  tried  a  system  of  dealer- 
erectors  some  12  years  before  the  survey  and  had  decided  that  the 
direct  mail-order  business,  with  individuals  acting  as  their  own  build 
ing  contractors,  mostly  in  rural  non-farm  areas,  was  better  suited  to  its 
purposes. 

On  the  other  hand,  factory  sales  organizations  frequently  sold  large 
groups  of  houses  to  a  contractor,  a  municipality,  or  an  equity  in 
vestor.  This  middleman  then  went  on  to  erect  or  to  make  the  arrange 
ments  for  erection  by  a  contractor.  Dealers  were  ordinarily  not  so 
well  able  to  handle  such  sales,  and  some  companies  reserved  the  right 
even  in  exclusive  dealer  franchises  to  make  sales  of  this  sort  them- 

18  C.  F.  Dally,  President,  Prefabricated  Products  Co.,  Inc.,  interviewed  January 
21,  1947. 

19  Sears,  Roebuck  and  Co.,  which  had  sold  precut  houses  from  1911  through 
1942,  brought  out  its  Homart  house  in  1947.    This  was  designed  as  a  ready-to- 
erect  house,  partially  precut,  partially  prefabricated,  and  partially  of  random- 
length  materials  to  be  cut  to  fit  in  the  field.     Sales  were  made  through  mail 
order  catalogues  in  Philadelphia,  Boston,  Chicago,  and  Kansas  City  (mostly  to 
rural  customers)   and  through  the  company's  retail  stores   (mostly  to  customers 
living  in  nearby  urban  areas). 

374 


selves.  At  least  20  companies  made  part  of  their  sales,  and  seven 
made  all  of  them,  in  this  way.  American  Houses  was  a  good  example 
of  a  company  with  a  skilled  central  sales  staff  on  the  lookout  for 
large  project  business;  and  the  producers  of  precast  concrete  houses, 
for  example,  Vacuum  Concrete,  almost  had  to  sell  to  large  projects 
because  their  system  of  construction  only  then  became  economical. 
Most  prefabricators,  however,  felt  that  distribution  of  this  sort  tended 
to  be  spasmodic  and  made  it  difficult  to  achieve  the  steady  and  pre 
dictable  flow  of  production  which  they  needed  for  greatest  efficiency 
throughout  the  whole  pattern  of  operations. 


2.  Erection  by  Manufacturer 

Twenty-seven  companies  sold  all  their  houses  directly  to  the  con 
sumer  and  then  erected  the  unit  for  him,  while  30  additional  com 
panies  handled  part  of  their  distribution  in  this  way. 

Ordinarily,  distribution  of  this  type  was  localized,  with  erection 
in  the  immediate  areas  surrounding  the  factory.  It  was  found  not 
profitable  to  send  erection  crews  several  hundred  miles  in  order  to 
erect  one  house  or  a  small  group  of  houses,20  and  labor  unions  tended 
to  look  with  disfavor  upon  the  arrival  in  the  community  of  erection 
crews  who  were  not  members  of  the  union  local. 

An  important  trend  during  this  period  of  boom  housing  was  the 
entrance  into  the  prefabrication  field  of  many  large  lumber  dealers, 
who  preferred  to  do  this  work  themselves  rather  than  continue  to 
finance  and  supply  builders  as  had  been  done  before  the  war.  Of  the 
companies  interviewed,  six  were  lumber  companies  which  decided 
to  prefabricate  and  erect  their  own  production.  There  undoubtedly 
were  many  other  lumber  dealers  not  included  in  this  survey  who  pre 
fabricated  and  erected  houses  on  a  local  scale. 

A  more  dramatic  performance  was  the  erection  by  factory  crews 
of  large  site  projects.  Maximum  economies  could  be  obtained  through 
a  combination  of  centralized  factory  production  with  mass  erection 
on  a  well-organized  schedule  on  a  large  tract  of  land  in  the  vicinity 

20  At  least  part  of  the  reason  for  the  failure  of  Anchorage  Homes  lay  in  its 
attempt  to  market  its  entire  output  (goal:  16  houses  per  day)  direct  to  pur 
chasers  and  to  erect  the  houses  above  foundation  with  its  own  erection  crews, 
who  often  commuted  to  and  from  scattered  sites  several  hundreds  of  miles  from 
the  plant  and  were  always  hard  to  supervise. 

375 


of  the  plant.21  Well-publicized  examples  of  the  combination  of  plant 
and  site  organization  were  the  Byrne  Organization  and  Kaiser  Com 
munity  Homes,  where  whole  neighborhoods  were  involved  and  site 
location  and  planning  became  an  obviously  important  factor  in  the 
success  or  failure. 

A  few  companies  put  up  their  own  houses  in  group  projects  before 
sales  had  been  made  to  the  ultimate  purchasers.  One  reason  for  this 
was  to  insure  steady  production  at  the  plant;  this  channel  of  distribu 
tion  sometimes  became,  therefore,  an  adjunct  to  the  more  orthodox 
methods  of  sales.  If  the  prefabricator  had  not  sold  as  many  house 
packages  as  were  necessary  to  maintain  a  steady  production  rate,  he 
would  build  a  group  on  speculation.  Hamill  and  Jones  had  100  such 
houses  under  erection  when  interviewed.  The  California  Prefab 
Corp.  was  putting  out  four  houses  a  day  for  its  own  erection,  but 
expected  to  sell  only  about  two  houses  a  week  in  response  to  orders 
from  outside  customers.  Naturally,  operations  of  this  sort  depended 
upon  a  continuing  demand  for  housing  in  the  price  range  offered,  and 
they  were  found  only  in  areas  of  great  housing  shortage. 

Where  houses  were  largely  plant  fabricated,  as  were  the  Prenco, 
Prefabricated  Products,  and  Acorn  houses,  companies  expressed  a 
preference  for  carrying  out  a  good  part  of  the  erection  of  nearby 
houses  themselves,  feeling  that  the  combination  of  familiarity  with 
their  product  and  ability  to  shorten  an  already  brief  site  labor  require 
ment  would  be  to  their  benefit. 


B.  Factory  to  Dealer  to  Consumer 

*  Most  prefabricators  considered  a  middleman  between  the  factory 
and  the  consumer  a  distributive  advantage.  The  middlemen  chosen 
were  usually  independent  dealers  whose  job  was  to  relieve  the  manu 
facturer  of  most  of  the  marketing  task,  and  to  make  prefabricated 
houses  readily  available  to  more  people  than  could  the  manufacturer 
himself. 

Certainly,  in  the  eyes  of  the  prefabricator,  the  principal  function  of 
dealers  was  to  enlarge  the  market  for  his  houses.  The  prefabricator 

21  Perhaps  the  clearest,  although  hardly  a  typical,  example  was  that  of  the 
Parsons  Construction  Company,  in  Canada,  which  set  up  a  demountable  wood 
fabricating  plant  at  each  final  project  site,  complete  with  movable  tracks  on  which 
to  roll  finished  panels  to  the  section  of  the  site  in  which  the  proper  part  of  the 
erection  process  was  in  progress. 

376 


was  limited  in  his  ability  to  cover  intensively  what  he  regarded  as 
his  market  area,  but  strategically  located  dealers  could  be  on  the  spot 
all  the  time.  By  combining  the  orders  from  all  these  dealers  the 
prefabricator  could  maintain  steady  production  and  concentrate  his 
efforts  on  improving  factory  techniques. 

Another  advantage  of  the  independent  dealer  was  his  familiarity 
with  the  local  market.  He  was  better  able  to  know  when  a  member 
of  the  community  might  become  an  active  prospect  for  a  house,  and, 
in  addition,  his  community  tended  to  regard  him  as  "one  of  them" 
and  sales  resistance  therefore  was  likely  to  be  less.  He  was  also  likely 
to  be  of  great  assistance  to  the  purchaser  in  dealing  with  local  build 
ing  codes,  tax  regulations,  finance  problems,  and  site  selection. 
Furthermore,  he  provided  the  prefabricator  with  much-needed  finan 
cial  aid.  When  the  prefabricator  delivered  a  house  package,  he  was 
paid  by  the  dealer.  Thus,  the  manufacturer  had  less  money  tied  up 
in  the  distribution  process,  and  could  devote  more  of  his  working 
capital  to  production  purposes. 

There  were  many  different  types  of  dealers,  whose  function  with 
regard  to  the  erection  of  their  houses  varied  widely;  they  might  them 
selves  undertake  the  erection,  or  it  might  be  done  by  the  producer 
or  even  by  the  purchaser. 


1.  Erection  by  Manufacturer 

Department  stores  occasionally  were  used  as  dealers  for  prefabri 
cated  houses.  In  such  cases  the  house,  a  section  of  it,  or  a  large-scale 
model  of  it  was  erected  in  the  store,  thus  offering  to  the  store's  large 
clientele  the  opportunity  of  a  detailed  personal  inspection  with  a 
minimum  of  effort.  A  sales  representative  was  almost  always  present 
to  describe  the  features  of  the  house,  arrange  the  sale,  assist  in  financ 
ing,  and  perhaps  suggest  tie-in  package  sales  through  the  store  for 
furnishing  the  house.  The  factory  delivered  the  house  and  erected  it 
on  the  site.  Precision-Built  Homes  planned  to  sell  in  this  way,  utiliz 
ing  a  "Precision  Builder"  who  operated  within  a  50-mile  radius,  erect 
ing  all  houses  sold  by  the  store  in  that  area. 

Only  a  few  members  of  the  industry  believed  that  department  stores 
were  likely  to  become  important  dealers  in  houses.  Most  felt  that  the 
high  unit  value  and  low  turnover  rate  of  houses  were  not  in  char 
acter  with  most  other  items  for  sale  in  such  stores,  and  that  customer 

377 


buying  motives  would  not  be  likely  to  lead  them  there  to  buy  houses. 
Furthermore,  it  was  pointed  out  that  the  many  facilitating  and  fol 
low-up  activities  connected  with  the  sale  of  a  house  would  be  unduly 
burdensome  for  high-volume  fast-turnover  department  stores  to  as 
sume.  In  short,  prefabricators  tended  to  feel  that  the  most  valuable 
service  the  department  store  could  offer  would  be  to  display  the  house 
to  a  large  number  of  people,  and  to  design  related  furniture  and 
furnishing  package  sales  which  would  ease  the  effort  and  expense  of 
furnishing  the  house.  Thus,  Adirondack  Log  Cabin  and  Anchorage 
Homes,  among  others,  made  use  of  department  stores  only  to  display 
their  house  models;  the  store  did  not  enter  into  the  sales  transaction. 

Use  was  made  by  24  companies  of  general  dealers  in  prefabricated 
homes,  with  the  understanding  that  the  company  would  perform  the 
erection  of  all  houses  sold  by  these  dealers.  By  and  large,  the  pre 
fabricators  felt  that  more  sales  were  made  through  these  dealers  than 
through  department  stores,  since  their  primary  business  was  to  sell 
houses  and  they  would  be  able  to  seek  out  prospective  customers 
more  actively  and  to  pay  more  careful  attention  to  their  needs. 

In  some  cases  the  general  dealers  also  provided,  or  arranged  for,  the 
land  on  which  the  houses  were  to  be  erected  by  factory  crews.  The 
Brice  Realty  Company,  acting  as  an  agent  for  Prenco,  on  one  occasion 
sold  both  a  group  of  230  houses  and  the  land  on  which  Prenco  was 
to  place  them.  Of  the  companies  using  general  dealers,  seven  dis 
tributed  almost  exclusively  in  this  fashion. 


2.  Erection  by  Dealer 

More  prefabricators  elected  to  sell  through  dealer-erectors  than 
through  any  other  distribution  channel;  45  companies  used  dealer- 
erectors  in  part,  and  25  companies  used  them  exclusively.  For  27 
companies  from  which  detailed  information  was  obtained,  the  average 
number  of  dealer-erectors  was  43.22  The  PHMI  in  1945  gave  the 
dealer-erector  almost  official  standing  as  the  preferred  type  of  dealer 
outlet  in  a  resolution  which  recognized  "the  basic  concept  of  selling 
standardized,  brand  name  homes,  mass-produced,  nationally  adver 
tised  and  mass-distributed  to  the  mass  market  through  dealers  whose 
functions  will  include  sales,  erection,  servicing,  and  mortgage  financ- 

22  Of  these,  one  claimed  to  have  400,  two  to  have  100,  and  the  rest  fewer. 
Five  had  fewer  than  five. 

378 


ing."23  Many  of  the  companies  were  willing  to  indicate  the  fields 
from  which  they  drew  their  dealer-erectors,  and  this  information  is 
presented  briefly  here: 

35  Contractors   or  operative  builders  exclusively 

19  Mostly  contractors 

15  Mostly  operative  builders 

10  Real  estate  brokers  or  subdividers 

7  "Financially  responsible  parties" 

6  Lumber  yards 

3  Primarily  selling  organizations 

As  might  be  expected,  the  large  majority  had  a  background  of  some 
kind  of  building. 

The  reasons  for  the  popularity  of  dealer-erectors  are  worth  investi 
gating.  First  of  all,  as  dealers,  they  enlarged  the  market  area  which 
had  to  be  larger  than  the  immediate  area  of  the  factory  in  order  to 
maintain  steady  production.  In  fact  it  has  been  pointed  out  that 
many  experienced  prefabricators  felt  they  would  have  to  produce  sev 
eral  thousand  houses  regularly  each  year  in  order  to  attain  the  full 
economies  of  industrialization.  A  well-organized  chain  of  dealer- 
erectors  was  believed  to  be  the  most  likely  way  to  reach  such  sales 
volumes,  and  it  could  smooth  out  the  irregularities  in  orders  by  cover 
ing  a  variety  of  areas  which  the  prefabricator  otherwise  might  have 
to  neglect.  The  manufacturer  was  also  relieved  of  the  responsibility 
of  handling  the  mass  of  essentially  local  problems  faced  in  erecting 
the  house,  once  the  package  had  been  sold.  With  a  well-trained 
dealer  organization  putting  sales  on  an  efficient  basis,  the  manufac 
turer  could  concentrate  on  production. 

Dealer-erectors,  while  collectively  enlarging  the  market  area,  were 
able  individually  to  concentrate  efforts  within  their  own  relatively 
limited  market  areas.  Crews  did  not  need  to  travel  far  to  the  sites; 
factory-method  advantages  and  erection  economies  could  be  mastered; 
site  expenses  could  be  held  down.  Furthermore,  dealer-erectors  used 
local  labor,  which  induced  greater  local  cooperation  than  would  the 
importation  of  factory  erection  crews. 

To  the  ultimate  consumer,  the  dealer-erector  was  a  means  of  avoid 
ing  burdensome  problems.  Almost  the  only  action  needed  on  the 
part  of  the  prospective  buyer  was  to  sign  his  name  to  the  sales  con 
tract  and  furnish  evidence  of  being  a  reliable  credit  risk  to  the  financ 
ing  agency.  The  major  part  of  the  prefabricated  housing  industry 

23  Prefabricated  Homes,  6  (December  1945),  12,  reporting  the  winter  meet 
ing  of  the  PHMI  in  Tulsa,  Oklahoma,  held  December  3  and  4,  1945.  Of  course, 
not  all  members  of  PHMI  distribute  in  this  way. 

379 


felt  that  this  was  the  best  way  to  get  houses  to  customers  at  the 
lowest  cost,  and  many  indicated  that  they  had  evidence  that  it  was 
cheaper  than  direct  distribution  from  factory  to  consumer. 

If  a  manufacturer  distributed  directly  to  the  consumer,  he  had  to 
keep  a  sizable  sales  force  in  the  field  for  high  sales  volume,  and  then 
sales  expense  and  commissions  rapidly  built  up  his  operating  expense. 
In  addition,  a  great  deal  of  additional  capital  was  needed  to  carry  the 
house  packages  from  the  time  they  left  the  assembly  line  until  they 
finally  were  taken  over  by  the  consumer.  If  the  consumer  was  to  erect 
his  house,  the  house  package  had  to  sell  at  a  very  low  price;  if  the 
factory  handled  the  erection,  further  operating  expense  was  incurred. 
Well-trained  dealer-erectors,  making  use  of  efficient  selling  techniques, 
cut  overall  selling  costs  and  were  eminently  qualified  to  handle  the 
sizable  site-construction  job  involved  in  the  average  prefabricated 
house.  Planning  ahead,  they  could  pour  foundations  in  warm  weather 
and  thus  continue  to  build  houses  in  the  winter  season;  this  would 
have  the  obviously  beneficial  effect  of  smoothing  out  the  seasonal 
variations  in  factory  production.24 

There  were,  however,  some  difficulties  with  dealer-erectors.  Most 
of  them  had  previously  been  builders,  used  to  working  according  to 
local  conventions  and  with  local  men.  As  a  rule,  they  were  rugged 
individualists  and  good  builders;  they  sometimes  regarded  new  erec 
tion  techniques  with  disfavor.  It  was  often  difficult  to  persuade 
dealer-erectors  to  take  a  limited  profit  per  unit,  on  the  theory  that 
they  would  sell  many  more  units,  in  a  seller's  market  and  a  period  of 
shortages  when  many  prefabricators  found  it  difficult  to  deliver  the 
promised  volume.  Some  dealer-erectors  were  reluctant  to  tie  up  their 
capital  in  foundations  laid  in  anticipation  of  inclement  weather. 
Others,  not  wishing  to  displease  local  associates  of  long  standing, 
tended  to  buy  less  than  the  whole  house  package,  omitting  the  parts 
they  would  prefer  to  purchase  locally.  There  was  at  the  time  of  the 
survey  little  real  stimulus  for  the  dealer-erector  to  build  the  sort  of 
alert  service  organization  which  prefabricators  considered  important 
as  a  device  to  take  care  of  minor  difficulties  once  the  house  has  been 
built. 

It  was  expected  that  most  of  these  difficulties  would  be  resolved  in 
a  stabilized  market,  but  nevertheless  many  of  the  large  prefabricators 

24  A  good  example  was  offered  by  National  Homes,  which  even  in  the  shortage 
winter  of  1946-1947  was  making  binding  commitments  with  its  more  than  100 
dealers  for  three  months  in  advance,  and  which  produced  and  shipped  at  a 
steady  rate  of  never  fewer  than  2^  units  per  day.  So  predictable  a  volume  made 
possible  obvious  procurement  and  production  economies. 

380 


felt  that  they  would  have  to  develop  a  new,  young,  and  flexible  type 
of  dealer-erector.25  It  was  conceded  that  this  scheme  would  be  likely 
to  succeed  in  the  degree  that  the  conventional  site  work  required  in 
the  erection  of  prefabricated  houses  could  be  reduced. 

Another  very  common  middleman  was  the  lumber